Third volume of Richard Farrell piano recordings a fascinating collection of till-now unreleased treasures

Richard Farrell recordings for Atoll
Volume 3

CD 1: Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 with the National Orchestra of the NZBS, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (1948)
CD 2: Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat.  Richard Farrell Piano Quartet (Radio Suisse, Zurich, 1956)
Liszt: Transcriptions/reminiscences and original pieces
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F  minor
De Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
CD 3: William Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes (BBC 1957)

Monday 16 December 2019

The third volume of recordings of piano performances by Richard Farrell (1926 – 1958) has appeared, nine years after the first volume. Apart from a couple of small pieces, none have been commercially released though Peter Mechen (who was the assistant producer and undertook research) reminds me that the Tchaikovsky concerto was played by the then Concert Programme in the 1980s and the Liszt recital was broadcast as part of a programme marking the 25th anniversary of Farrell’s death in 1983 as well as sporadically since.

The highlights here are the two piano concertos from the one-year-old National Orchestra in 1948, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (who certain local critics were pleased to routinely excoriate); Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Fantasy Waltzes by William Alwyn.

This final instalment, which consists of three CDs, has been slow emerging since it contains mainly music that has not appeared on commercial recordings (as was the case of the earlier volumes), and its unearthing has been a painstaking and sometimes complex process. The sources have been mainly radio networks: the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (as it was then), the BBC and Swiss Radio. In the light of the all-too-common practice by broadcasters of deleting music thought at the time to be unimportant, it is surprising and significant that these recordings have at last been publicly released.

It’s amazing they even survived!

The first two volumes
The first two-CD volume contained a number of Grieg’s piano works including the Piano Concerto and his Ballade in G minor, selections from the Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces; Brahms’s four Ballades, Op 10, and  several other pieces including the Waltzes of Op 39.

Volume 2 contained Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli and six of his Preludes; a number of pieces by Chopin including the first Scherzo; Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel and some of the Op 119 piano pieces, Liszt’s ‘reminiscences’, ‘paraphrases’ etc on popular pieces by other composers, including the quartet from Rigoletto and Schumann’s Widmung (which reappear now in Volume 3) and other smaller works: Schumann’s Arabesque and pieces by Mendelssohn, Debussy and De Falla.

Tchaikovsky No 1 and Beethoven No 4
The first disc in Volume 3 contains the two piano concertos, recorded in the Auckland Town Hall by the NZBS in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra’s first performance. There is nothing disgraceful about the performance or the recording: it showed a 22-year-old Farrell somewhat inclined to overdramatise the music (if that could conceivably be a fault with this concerto!), occasionally disregarding the orchestra, but compared with the not uncommon tendency for soloists to be a little at odds, tempo-wise and in dynamics, with an orchestra, the flaws are very inconsequential. What is much more interesting is to have (for New Zealanders at any rate) this evidence of the very youthful orchestra and a comparably young, though already internationally acclaimed pianist. Tchaikovsky offers the pianist a commanding start and Farrell responds with unbridled ardour. His playing is typically impetuous, allowing little space between phrases, but these are well contrasted with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in quiet passages. The frequent bravura passages are, nevertheless, not just breath-taking but conspicuously in tune with the music, for example in the episode leading to the peroration at the end of the first movement.

The deficiencies of the recording are perhaps more evident in the meditative second movement where one might have difficulty distinguishing the various woodwinds. I don’t know the size of the string sections in the early orchestra, but the third movement certainly reveals a thinness.

A more successful blending of soloist and orchestra exists in the Beethoven concerto where Farrell clearly responds to the more ‘classical’ character of the earlier work; in fact, I was impressed by the clarity and well-judged high spirits of the Finale, which I found myself thoroughly enjoying.

Schumann Piano Quartet
The recording of the Schumann Piano Quartet by the short-lived Richard Farrell Piano Quartet is very interesting. This recording for Swiss Radio is the only known, surviving recording by the group. The story of the discovery of its existence, the result of the concurrence of people and memories, is nearly as remarkable as the performance itself, which is the only example of Farrell as a consummate chamber musician.

The group was put together by a former member of the Adolph Busch Quartet, cellist Paul Grümmer, in Switzerland in 1956. Remarkably, two of the quartet’s members, violist Eduard Melkus and cellist Ottomar Borwitsky were aged about 90 when this issue was being prepared. They contributed memories of Farrell printed in the CD booklet: interesting, revelatory and amusing.

One might listen to this recording of Schumann’s piano quartet and, given the rarity of permanent piano quartet ensembles, hear the sounds characteristic of string quartets of the era, such as the Budapest or Borodin, the Fine Arts or Amadeus quartets (not to mention the Busch Quartet itself, one of the most famous of all). The sound is partly attributable no doubt to contemporary recording characteristics and quality, and not to be denigrated. So the recording is a treasure; microphones are quite close and the feeling of immediacy, intimacy is enhanced, which would make anything less than perfect articulation and intonation very conspicuous. The opening is warmly meditative, in sharp contrast to the sudden arrival of the Allegro of the first movement revealing admirable ensemble in which no instrument is dominant at any stage; that is no doubt a tribute in part to the engineer almost as much as to the players.

The rest of the second CD is taken by a selection of fairly popular piano pieces: several Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences, the 6th Hungarian Rhapsody and the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa from the Years of Pilgrimage II – Italy.  Excellent performances, at times almost too perfect.

Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes
The third disc is devoted to a real rarity: a set of eleven pieces, Fantasy Waltzes, dedicated to Farrell by British composer William Alwyn. They too were discovered somewhat by chance, traced through the William Alwyn Foundation and the William Alwyn Archive in the Cambridge University Library and recorded by the BBC in 1957. I’d never come across this suite of pieces and a first hearing didn’t make much impression: music of the era – the 1950s – that was not dictated by the strictures of the avant-garde, of serialism; but which did at first seem a bit lightweight, feathery, lacking melodic character: somewhat akin to Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. But on second and later hearings its charming, unpretentious nature has taken root, as the various styles of waltzes are explored, melodies became more appealing and occasional cross-references start to emerge, all creating a more complex and interesting set of pieces.

Exploration of references on the Internet have led me to explore Alwyn’s other music – five symphonies and other orchestral music, four operas, much chamber and piano music as well as around seventy film scores (the NZSO under James Robertson played his second symphony in 1956 in Wellington and Auckland).

You will find an account of the Fantasy Waltzes, inter alia, on a website about a Chandos CD by pianist Julian Milford, in a series devoted to Alwyn; it mentions an earlier recording by John Ogdon, but not, naturally enough, the original dedicatee and first performer, Farrell.

Here is a quote from a review on the website:

“The Fantasy-Waltzes date from 1956-7, inspired by a visit to Grieg’s lakeside home. Almost certainly Alwyn’s best known piano music, this is a dazzling showcase, a work of constant invention which runs the gamut of moods and styles, yet is always unmistakably Alwyn. The pieces do stand alone, even though some end in disconcertingly flippant ways, but become more than the sum of the parts when heard as part of the complete structure. This is a kaleidoscope, a sustained and thoroughly enjoyable work with all the drama, colour and atmosphere one expects from Alwyn. Underneath it all is a smile, the warmth of a romantic who also knew how to have fun, both facets woven together in the spectacular twists and turns of the closing Presto.”

I feel very much the same way about them. The most comprehensive account of the pieces is on the website:

That article lists five recorded performances of the Fantasy Waltzes that were released, which did not of course include Farrell’s which remained in the archive. But it seems to be the only website to mention Farrell and it notes that he had played several of the waltzes in New Zealand before this recording was made (2 June 1957).

All of which confirm one’s impression of their being a rather significant part of the composer’s output that is nowadays rather neglected.

So Volume 3, a very miscellaneous collection of previously unpublished recordings of Farrell’s playing, not only deserves to be better known, but in their different ways reveal performances that are very interesting in themselves: A glimpse of the early NZSO, a fine performance of Schumann’s lovely piano quartet, a group of popular piano pieces that were better known in the 1950s than they are today, as a result of promoters’ avoidance of piano recitals, and the discovery of a group of charming and imaginative pieces by the neglected William Alwyn.

At least one of these diverse aspects should be enough to attract a wide range of music lovers.

This third volume of Farrell CDs can be purchased from Marbecks in Auckland: see their website.

Large audience for a delightful concert by Camerata chamber orchestra

Haydn in the Church

Camerata chamber orchestra
Concertmaster:  Anne Loeser
Soloists: Robert Orr and Anne Loeser

Corelli: Concerto grosso in G minor Op. 6 No. 8 (Christmas Concerto)
J. S. Bach: Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D minor after BMW 1060
Haydn: Symphony No. 10 in C, Hob. 1:10

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Thursday 12 December 2019, 6 pm  

Camerata’s vision is to ‘perform high quality joyful chamber music accessible alike to newcomers and classical aficionados’. The small chamber orchestra includes members of Wellington’s professional orchestras as well as students and graduates of the NZ School of Music. It is a very accomplished ensemble.

Corelli: Christmas Concerto
Anne Loeser and Ursula Evans violins, Robert Ibell, cello

This is probably Corelli’s most popular work, often featured in anthologies of Christmas music. It is now hard to appreciate how revolutionary such music was in its time, a purely instrumental piece not written to compliment or accompany vocal music but to showcase purely instrumental and above all, string music. One is taken by the sheer beauty of the sound of strings on top of a bass continuo. It is not difficult or challenging music, it is just gorgeous. The work is made up of six short movements that alternate between fast and slow. They are built on contrasting repeated phrases, miniatures of devotional music. The playing requires a light touch and precision. It culminates in the beautiful Pastorale.

This is one of the 12 Concerti Grossi commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a notable patron of arts, and was performed, very likely, in 1690 at one of the Cardinal’s Monday “academies”,  his concerts. The commission was a mark of Corelli’s success and recognition. He was acknowledged as the finest  violinist of his generation. Corelli’s music and musical form had a great influence on younger and later composers, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach and others.

Bach: Concerto for Oboe and Violin
Robert Orr, oboe and Anne Loeser, violin

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the original version of this concerto, transcribed from Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor was lost or never existed, this arrangement of the keyboard parts that correspond to the individual range of the oboe and violin parts is one of Bach’s most attractive instrumental pieces. In the 1970s Nikolaus Harnoncourt transposed the concerto one tone up to D minor and this is the arrangement that was played. From the very opening bars of the work, the lively sound of the oboe lifts the music. Robert Orr, principal oboist of the NZSO is an exquisite musician who engages instantly with audience and orchestra alike. There was a lovely interplay between violin and oboe, though it was hard for the violin not to be overwhelmed by the penetrating sound of the oboe. The final movement was just exuberant joyous music. It was wonderful to hear this work.

Haydn: Symphony No. 10
Haydn was in his mid 20s when Count Morzin engaged him as music director and chamber composer for his orchestra of about 16 musicians, a steady job for a young man who until then had  lived precariously as an occasional violinist and music teacher. Haydn wrote some 17 symphonies while in the employ of Count Morzin for the Count’s weekly entertainments. These were expected to be light works, easy to listen to, nothing challenging, nothing to cloud the mood of the guests. Haydn learned composition by studying the works of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, with help from the Italian composer and singing teacher, Nicola Porpora for whom he worked as an accompanist. Thus his first symphonies were based on tradition. But they, as evident in No. 10 that we heard, had signs of the future Haydn. This was refreshingly different from the previous works in the concert, revealing a sense of humour, and, particularly in the last movement, a suggestion of an earthy, peasant dance. The horn, oboe and bassoon that joined the orchestra added a richer variety of tone.

The concert was a delightful journey from Corelli though Bach to early Haydn. It was all thoroughly enjoyable music, ideal for anyone approaching classical music with some trepidation. The gratifyingly large audience appreciated it all and was rewarded with a repeat of the Pastorale movement of the Christmas Concerto, this time with the addition of winds, adding a richness to the work.


Wellington Chamber Orchestra succeeds with Šinkovec Burstin in Grieg piano concerto, and other Nordic classics

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Samuel Burstin with Ana Šinkovec Burstin (piano)

Nielsen: Helios Overture, Op 17
Grieg: Piano concerto in A, Op 16
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82

Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 8 December, 2:30 pm

In my review of Jian Liu’s performance two years ago of Grieg’s Piano Concerto I remarked that I was mystified that it continued to be considered a popular, even hackneyed work when, for many years, it’s been so little performed. That lovely performance with Jian Liu may have prompted the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to take a look at it. If so they served themselves and Edvard Grieg very well.

Nielsen’s Helios Overture is a relative rarity too, perhaps more understandably, though I remember the surprise I felt when I first hear it perhaps 30 years ago, that such an engaging and imaginative piece had eluded me so long. My last record of hearing it live was in 2007 from the NZSO.  I don’t think I’ve heard it from RNZ Concert for a long time and given the current limited range of music played, I don’t expect it.

There’s no problem with Sibelius of course, though it would be nice to hear the 4th or 6th instead of the ubiquitous 2 or 5 or perhaps 7.

The Helios Overture is a concert overture – not evidence of an unperformed opera. Helios was a small-time god in the ancient Greek cosmos. I was a minute late arriving and it had reached the beginning of the enchanting ‘dawn’ theme, first from strings, then woodwinds, depicting the sun rising over the Aegean (a bit difficult as Athens faces south-west across the Saronic Gulf; however, the sun rises from the sea in other parts of Attika peninsula). Nevertheless, Burstin was successful in drawing evocative sounds from the orchestra, the four horns acquitting themselves well, but no better than the perhaps less prominent playing from trumpets and trombones and the woodwinds. Nielsen didn’t seek to create a visual impression, and though I can’t say that I experienced anything approaching a Mediterranean sunrise, the nature of the themes and their orchestration certainly generated an emotional response that one might compare with looking out to sea from Cape Sounion; deeply nostalgic and enchanting – but then I’ve long been a lover of Nielsen, as well as Greece (how about Nielsen as featured composer for Orchestra Wellington in 2021; six symphonies and all?).

Grieg Piano Concerto 
This second hearing of the Grieg concerto in two years hasn’t dulled my affection for it. In spite of a somewhat too emphatic opening (which I should try to refrain from likening to the thunderous cataclysm of early that morning), it quickly settled into a well-balanced performance. The pianist, Ana Šinkovec Burstin, was born in Slovenia and is a recent arrival in New Zealand after a varied musical career in Europe and the United States in the past decade. Though there were moments in the first and last movements where I felt her playing was a little guileless, overall, and especially in the Adagio slow movement, she captured Grieg’s happy mingling of innocent charm and bravura, sensitively, exploiting that unexpected subsiding to silence in the middle of the Finale, creating as magical an effect as I’ve ever experienced. It highlighted the sudden revival of the music’s abandoned, folk-dance character through to the end, under the generally splendid partnership between piano and orchestra.

Sibelius 5 
The presence of the most popular of Sibelius’s symphonies was undoubtedly as good an explanation for the big audience as the concerto might have been. In the past the WCO’s percussion and brass have tended to sound unruly in the generous though recalcitrant acoustic of St Andrew’s; this time, perhaps my position at the back of the gallery calmed things. The result, in any case, was attractive. Though competing themes sometimes risk confusing harmonies, here was clarity, and carefully paced crescendi were always under control, producing the effect that the composer clearly sought. Strings whispered secretively with the support of bassoons, and rich brass choruses expanded to achieve impressive climaxes; flutes and oboes varied the colours nicely.  The first movement ends with an exciting crescendo which the orchestra managed rather splendidly (according to what I scribbled in my note-book).

The Andante Mosso (second movement) uses a lot of pizzicato strings and the playing was fine. Against underlying support of a lovely wind chorale, strings handled the very typically Sibelius episode of throbbing strings carefully, even movingly.

After the peaceful, pastoral Andante the finale opened with lively throbbing strings, and undulating horns created a near-professional impression. The movement is enriched with a deeply moving melody that arrives later, created mainly by horns. The orchestral sound was fairly dense, moving between hushed passages; then slowly evolving crescendi led by flutes and clarinet and eventually, quite elegant brass harmonies.

By the end, there was a very satisfying feeling of a convincing interpretation through a carefully studied pulse that had evolved through the repetition of the almost hypnotic theme, till those last widely spaced chords that always come as a slight surprise.

This was a particularly successful and enjoyable concert, with some of the most beautiful classics from three Nordic countries; perhaps a tribute in particular to conductor Burstin, it has consolidated my respect for the orchestra.

Lightning, thunder and Orpheus Choir’s and the NZSO’s “Messiah” – never a dull moment!

HANDEL – Messiah HWV 56 (complete)

Celeste Lazarenko (soprano)
Anna Pierard (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Goodwin (tenor)
Hadleigh Adams (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Graham Abbott (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th December, 2019

There would probably have been a number of people at this “Messiah” performance, both performers and audience members, who had shared something of my own experience a couple of hours before the concert’s starting-time, of the onslaught of an unexpectedly vicious single lightning strike during a storm over the Mt.Victoria area of the city, one whose particular impact on the house I was inside could have been likened to that of a blow from a gigantic iron-clad fist. Perhaps it was rather more in sheer visceral accord with parts of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony which both the choir and orchestra took part in several weeks ago! – still, the “force of nature” aspect to my mind tied in well with some of the more elemental parts of Handel’s score, put across here by the musical forces assembled with properly-focused strength and conviction.

This was Graham Abbott’s third Wellington appearance as conductor of a “Messiah” (previously in 2012 and 2016), and, as in his two previous outings, featured a “complete” performance of the work, the projected length of such an experience countered, as before, by the conductor’s more-than-usually quick tempi. Even so, the “2 hrs” duration suggested by the evening’s programme booklet seemed firstly alarming, and then, as good sense prevailed, unlikely! As it was, the performance by my reckoning took at least half-an-hour longer, but, thanks to the compelling quality of both singing and playing, kept our interest throughout.

Besides the conductor, and, of course, Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, other “old friends” included the soprano, Celeste Lazarenko, last here in 2017, and mezzo-soprano Anna Pierard, who sang the alto part with the conductor here in 2012. New chums were the two male soloists, both, I thought, making a splendid job of their music, handling the more technical aspects of their parts with great aplomb and bringing distinctive character to the words and their meanings.

The orchestra began proceedings, the band a tightly-knit, chamber-sized ensemble, reflecting the conductor’s desire to keep to the kind of sound he imagined the composer would have heard, the playing throughout confident, supple and spontaneous-sounding, able to surprise with an emphasis or phrasing even in a work as oft-heard as this one, and otherwise delivering all the anticipated “moments” with a fresh distinction. Though it seems odious to “single out” players, one couldn’t help but register the skills of trumpeter Michael KIrgan (resplendently note-perfect throughout “The trumpet shall sound”), and with his partner Mark Carter, adding lustre to both the “Glory to God” sequences of Part One, and the magnificence of the concluding sections of both “Halleluiah” and the final choruses. Unfailingly steadfast, too, was the continuo of harpsichordist Douglas Mews and organist Jonathan Berkahn, while the string and wind lines were a delight to register in both their complementing and counterpointing of Handel’s choral writing.

The first voice we heard was that of tenor Andrew Goodwin, who, in his opening ”Comfort ye” solo encompassed solace, comfort, hope and strength by getting his words to “speak” as well as make music (the word “cry”, for example). His tones had plenty of forthright “ring” and accompanying resonance, enabling him to beautifully “shape” his coloratura passages. In Part Two of the work, Goodwin related superbly with the chorus via his declamatory “All they that see Him” and the following incisive and mocking “He trusted in God”, the tenor’s reply full of pathos, and then carrying this intensity through to the insistent, more defiant,  “Thou shalt break them”, which tingled and stung with focused energy. Goodwin also teamed up tellingly with mezzo Anna Pierard for “O death, where is thy sting” the two fitting their lines together to exhilarating effect!

Although her “big moment” was undoubtedly the aria “He was despised”, whose slower, more meditative sections mezzo Anna Pierard delivered with breath-catching presence and feeling, she also coped as well as any I’ve heard with writing that was often low for the voice while requiring some “heft”, as with the “refiner’s fire” sections of “But who may abide”. Her voice gained in presence to arresting effect when the vocal line rose, as at the ending of “Oh thou that tellest”, and throughout “Then shall the eyes of the blind” – and her hand-in-glove teamwork with the tenor throughout “O Death” already noted, was a joy.

Of course the soprano’s entry is exquisitely timed by Handel for maximum effect at “There were shepherds”, and Celeste Lazarenko didn’t disappoint, a fractional “bump” during one of her “Rejoice Greatly” runs aside. But I thought she really came into her own later with “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which was beautifully shaped and inflected throughout, movingly so in places, not the least of which was the raptness of “the first fruits of them that sleep”. Then, she further enchanted with her “If God be for us”, floating her lines so sweetly, and confidently essaying the coloratura, with  both her ease and energy giving such pleasure and delight!

I can’t recall ever before hearing Palmerston North-born Hadleigh Adams sing, and thought his performance terrific! As if he, as well, had been assailed by that late afternoon‘s thunderbolt from the skies, he proceeded to bring out something of the same drama in “Thus Saith the Lord”, with a terrific cosmic “shake” and powerful upper notes, before delivering his message of the Lord’s “coming” with true theatrical presence. Dramatic, too, was his “haunted” tone at the beginning of “For, behold”, though he didn’t make as much of the crescendo at “the Lord shall rise upon thee” as I wea expecting – nevertheless, his was a properly visceral “The people that walked in darkness”, throwing his voice up and over great archways of tone throughout. Both in “Why do the nations” and “Behold I tell you a mystery” his storytelling gifts came out strongly, carrying us along with his energies and descriptive detailings – a most engaging performance!

Thus, too, was the Orpheus Choir’s contribution to the proceedings, beginning with a truly resplendent “And the glory of the Lord”, though one which then made the sopranos’ momentary ensemble “hiccup” at the beginning of “And He shall purify” all the more unexpected! Things were fortunately restored with “For unto us” apart from a tendency for the tenors to hurry slightly with their running figurations – and thereafter it all grew in stature and magnificence right to the end. The sequence which truly caught up my responses was that beginning with “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, the sheer attack of both voices and instruments most arresting, followed by an amazingly contrasted “And with his stripes”, taken more slowly and intensely that usual, to be followed by “All we like sheep” the burst of energy awakening us from our reverie of having been “healed”, and the dovetailings between the voices themselves and the orchestra so very delicious to experience!

The response of the audience both to the conclusion of the “Halleluia” chorus and the final “Amen” was overwhelming, though I was sorry that the previously-mentioned work of the solo trumpeter, Michael Kirgan, didn’t seem to be specifically acknowledged at the end (or perhaps I missed that bit of the proceedings!). But all in all, very great credit to conductor Graham Abbott for his overall direction, as well as to the Orpheus’s director, Brent Stewart for the truly sonorous preparation of his forces for the concert.

In the wake of yet another expertly-delivered performance of “Messiah” sounded for us “as Handel would have heard it”, I was interested to be reminded, in another reviewer’s report of the concert, of the Mozart version of Messiah, performed here in 2013 (  – but I’ve also been thinking equally of late about the “Messiahs” that many of us would have grown up with in the 1950s and 60s, and wondering what people would think of a “retrospective” presentation of the work (in other words, “one for old times’ sakes”).

Two famous interpreters of the work from these (and earlier) times were Sir Malcolm Sargent (with his famed Huddersfield Chorus of about five thousand people! – or so it seemed!) and SIr Thomas Beecham with his equally outlandish but splendiferous re-orchestrations which (despite his estate’s claims to the contrary after his death) he had commissioned from another musical knight, Sir Eugene Goossens). My inclination would go towards the Beecham/Goossens version with its splendid array of nineteenth-century instruments accompanying the singers (“Handel would have loved it!” declared the ever imperturbable Sir Thomas!) The authenticists will throw their hands up in horror – but my feeling is that the rest of us will love it too! And what hearing it will probably do is enhance our appreciation of “period-practice” music-making even more. What might the NZSO and Orpheus forces think of THAT prospect, I wonder?




Haydn, Brahms and Brigid Bisley in superb recital from Diedre Irons and the Aroha Quartet

Aroha String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op 33 No 3 ‘The Bird’
Brigid Ursula Bisley: Unbound
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 1 December, 3 pm

Haydn’s The Bird
The last 2019 concert from the Aroha Quartet opened with Haydn’s quartet, The Bird, creating sounds that were quite stunning: not in the normal sense of fortissimo, exciting or cacophonous, but with sounds that were hardly of a string quartet at all. They were of such refinement and purity that they really did evoke the subtlest of bird calls that were pure and secretive, unearthly. The marking allegro moderato meant little as speed seemed quite irrelevant given that the music’s character was determined by the rare sound and unique spiritual quality the players generated.

Whether or not Haydn was seeking the greatest possible tonal contrasts between each of the instruments, that is what they produced; and the differences between the instruments so beautifully evoked, not just ‘a bird’, but a wonderful variety of birds.

And the second movement marked, unusually, Scherzo, as all six of the Op 33 are (the brisk middle movement was not generally called Scherzo till Beethoven took it up); indeed, it is a curious, sombre Scherzo, till the brighter middle section. The only bird-like character here was the continued refinement of sound, with exquisitely subtle dynamics. In the third movement the players continued delicacy found its most pensive aspect, again with the individual voices lending a rare quality; and the finale returned to summarise the bird-like character of the first movement with a cautious brightness, ending with a typically Haydnesque surprise.

Brigid Bisley’s Unbound
The central work in the programme was the nine-year-old Unbound by Brigid Ursula Bisley, though this was a revision; how extensive that was, I wondered. I heard its premiere at the 2011 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson.

It opened with a strange dissonance from the two violins, dealing with a calm musical idea; there followed a fluttering episode with trilling second violin and/or viola. The programme note described its division into three parts, structure around two melodic ideas, that were elaborated, in particular, quoting a phrase from Bach’s Musical Offering . Her note refers to a melody in Part II which grounded the music in tradition, at the same time as offering a spring-board for a return to more unorthodox idioms. And she refers to an atonal three-part fugue in Part III, but I hardly registered it as an atonal element since the absence of ‘tonal’ thematic ideas need not be alienating, or even recognisable, and nothing here was that.

As the music emerged from that episode, offering interesting motifs for each instrument, each prominent in turn, a feeling of integrity grew and my notes included the passing from a grieving cello to evolve into a genuinely imaginative, unpretentious and coherent work.

I refrained from looking at the review I wrote of its premiere at the 2011 Nelson Chamber Music Festival till I’d written the above, and was pleased to find that my feelings eight years ago were pretty much the same as now.

“It opened quietly, each instrument contributing intriguingly to a pattern of disharmony till a melody emerged and after a while viola and cello laid down some bass support. Influences? Yes, Bartók quite distinctly, but more important was an impression of music that was beholden to no school or musical ideology, but simply sounded alive to today’s environment, whatever that means, and aimed at engaging with the listener. Lots happened; there was a beguiling, dreamy phase, a yearning spirit as Doug Beilman’s second violin cried while Helene Pohl’s first violin sang a high descant over the cello’s pedal support. There were so many elements that appeared distinct but ultimately created a coherent musical story; and it ended without flourish or rhetoric.”)

Now I would not mention Bartók as a particular influence. Its character was its own and I felt that the composer would rather be heard as writing in an idiom that simply reflected our era, in its general, heterogeneous nature with nothing other than familiarity with a wide range of contemporary and earlier musical impulses: above all, a compulsion to create music that was not in an idiom that left listeners perplexed or annoyed, but was interesting and engaging. That it was.

Brahms: Piano Quintet
Brahms wonderful Piano Quintet may well have been the main attraction for the quite large audience; particularly since it involved Diedre Irons, along with the Aroha Quartet! The acoustic of St Andrew’s can be a problem, not just for orchestras and large ensembles, but sometimes for groups as small as a piano quintet. These players acute sensitivity and sensibility eliminated any chance of that.

In the first movement they were in perfect control, with Diedre Irons’s piano, which has been known to be fairly forthright, in comfortable balance, and more surprisingly, matching some of the strings’ exquisite subtlety. They produced sounds that were not only remarkably unified but also as if each was in a solo spotlight, contributing to a thoughtful drama of near orchestral intensity.

The piano leads for a while in the second movement, warm and gentle in spirit, a marked contrast to the first movement. Musicologists note the interesting shifts of key from movement to movement and within movements, but most of the audience, not burdened with perfect pitch, merely senses mood shifts, and things that enliven and maintain involvement with the music.

The Scherzo movement is orthodox, an ABA form, but in the minor key, though the Trio is in C major; it is a serious and weighty structure that in these hands acquired an almost symphonic character which was striking and arresting.

Some of this colour is probably attributed to the curious provenance of the piece, starting as a string quintet, then a sonata for two pianos before being published in its present form; and it’s recently been arranged for both full orchestra and for piano and orchestra: I can imagine both being successful.

It’s something of a surprise for the weighty Scherzo to be followed by the mysterious opening of the Finale, very subdued, till a few heavy piano chords hint at something more – I used the word ‘masculine’ in my notes, probably unlawfully.

The Finale becomes ever more powerful and emphatic, moving from Poco sostenuto through Allegro non troppo to Presto, non troppo in the Hungarian flavoured peroration. In some hands the Finale could be found a bit protracted, but in the hands of the Aroha and Irons that would have been unimaginable: this was a wonderful performance that maintained its serious and dramatic character to the end, flawlessly, passionately and with enormous conviction.