Remarkable NZSO concert of Bach family music inspired by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Diedre Irons and Andrew Joyce

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Vesa-Matti Leppänen – director and violin
‘Bach Extended’

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Duet for two flutes, F 57
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano, Wq 43/4 (Diedre Irons – fortepiano)
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus XIV (the last, unfinished fugue)
Cello Suite No 6 in D, BWV 1012, Gavottes and Gigue (Andrew Joyce)
Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, BWV 1068
Chorale Vor deinen Thron. BWV 668

Wellington College, Alan Gibbs Centre

Saturday 31 October, 7:30 pm

This was a very novel and interesting enterprise by the orchestra, partly on account of the venue, the surprisingly spacious hall at Wellington College. In the light of the lack in Wellington of a suitable auditorium that seats between 300 and 2000, apart from St Mary of the Angels and the Anglican cathedral, this space, presumably able to seat around 1500, could be useful for large musical events.

W F Bach from Bridget Douglas and Kristin Eade
While properly dominated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the concert opened with a touch of novelty – a piece for two flutes by the oldest of J S Bach’s surviving sons: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The Duet in F, F 57 (F stands for the acknowledged authority Falck). It was introduced with lively comments about the wooden flutes that would have been used in the mid 18th century, by Principal flute Bridget Douglas, with associate principal Kristin Eade; though I didn’t catch and could see clearly whether they were in fact playing early flutes.

It’s in three movements: Allegro moderato, Lamentabile and Presto (based on a Naxos recording by Patrick Gallois and Kazunori Seo).

C P E Bach and Diedre Irons 
Their playing of the first movement was beautifully soft and warm in tone, reflecting J S Bach rather more than do the younger sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. The playing was engaging and rhythmically attractive, and though not particularly marked melodically. Then a meandering, unostentatious second movement, showing a thoughtful and perhaps popular character, and the third conventionally brisk.

CPE Bach’s music is more prolific than WF’s and it became widely popular through his long employment in Berlin at the court of Frederick the Great and in Hamburg; but virtually disappeared after his death. However, it has become pretty familiar since the mid 20th century.

The orchestra, with Diedre Irons at the fortepiano, played his Concerto No 4 (his modern authority and cataloguer is Alfred Wotquenne – Wq). Its movements are Allegro assai, Poco adagio and tempo di menuetto, Allegro assai.

The fortepiano was positioned conventionally, with strings, the two flutes again, and two horns (Samuel Jacobs and Euan Harvey). The quiet of the fortepiano among the strings and the brevity of the first movement may have surprised some in the audience, as well as the Haydnesque character of the music though, alongside that (Haydn was about 20 years younger) it was certainly not as remarkable and entertaining as a Haydn concerto. There was a surprising quality in the slow pace of the second movement which without warning shifted to the triple, minuet rhythm. The last movement seemed to be the longest, again with curious rhythm shifts towards the end (my note during the last movement was ‘polite but hardly memorable’), but there were enough little surprises and a broad sense of interesting invention to hold attention.

The rest of the concert consisted of J S Bach.

Contrapunctus XIV
What a singular choice to focus on two of Bach’s last works, the final ‘Contrapunctus’ of The Art of Fugue and the Chorale Vor deinen Thron!

The choice of these Bach pieces seems to have been driven by the idea of death or finality.

The Art of Fugue was itself his last major work, left with no clear indication of what instruments should be employed, and also left unfinished before the end of the 14th fugue, or Contrapunctus, as Bach named them. The instrumentation chosen here was that by Ralph Sauer for brass instruments which created very imaginatively its funereal sense of finality. And it proved interesting in highlighting the singular talents of the orchestra’s brass section, including often strikingly, Andrew Jarvis’s tuba. The players seemed to place singular emphasis on the last unresolved note, avoiding the temptation that one occasionally encounters, to graft a legitimate cadence onto it.

Sixth Cello Suite 
After the interval came two of the most familiar Bach works – the two Gavottes and the Gigue from the last of the six cello suites in the remarkably gifted hands of Andrew Joyce. Though it might have been additionally revelatory if he had also played the Prelude or the Sarabande, this was a superb experience from a sensitive and perceptive cellist.

Suite No 3 
And then the third orchestral suite , BWV 1068: chosen no doubt on account of its Aria  or ‘Air on the G String’ (No 74 in this year’s ‘Settling the Score’ from Concert FM on Labour Day).

However, this was the suite in its entirety, with scrupulous playing not only by strings, but by trumpets and oboes, timpani and bassoon, horns and tuba. The varied overture, showing early signs of its later evolution in the form of the symphony, was quite as rewarding to hear as was the Air that follows. And it’s been a long time since I heard a live performance of the entire suite: including gavottes, bourée and gigue. This was an entirely enriching experience.

‘Vor deinen Thron’ – chorale prelude
It was reputedly Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron’, and not the unfinished 14th ‘Contrapunctus’ from The Art of Fugue that was Bach’s “deathbed composition”; reputedly dictated by the now blind composer. It is normally played on the organ but here was an arrangement involving the brass instruments. This performance captured the kind of pensive, neutral character that can be heard in Bach’s music, seeming hardly to seek any kind of tragic, funereal quality. Once again, it was the immaculate performance of these players that was so arresting, perhaps calling on the listener to decide how to feel about its purpose. And so it could have been heard, and seen, as a very different kind of conclusion to a very unusual selection of music by JS Bach and two of his sons.

This was the first of six performances of this programme – the rest are in the South Island:
Invercargill’s Civic Theatre on Tuesday 3 November
Dunedin’s Glenroy Auditorium in the Town Hall on Wednesday 4 November
Oamaru’s Opera House on Thursday 5 November
Christchurch’s auditorium, The Piano, on Friday 6 November
Nelson’s Centre of Musical Arts (formerly the Nelson School of Music) on Saturday 7 November.

I hope the citizens of these South Island cities take advantage of this unique chance to hear this rare and fascinating concert.


I came across a nicely literate, unpretentious description of these two last works by Bach (  

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ (Before your throne I now appear), BWV 668, has an interesting story behind it …

“BWV 668 is a chorale prelude, meaning that it is a piece of instrumental music which takes as its main thematic material an existing song. In this case the original music that the piece is based upon is a hymn entitled ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, which was originally written by Paul Eber in the 16th century. The source melody (or cantus firmus) was composed by Louis Bourgeois, also in the 16th century. Bach had previously arranged this hymn as BWV 431.  …early in his career, Bach created an organ chorale prelude from this piece, BWV 641, under the original title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’….

“What Bach does with BWV 641 is create an accompaniment which is based upon the melodies of the original hymn, but then adds an ornate cantabile melodic line over the top, which I’m sure you’ll agree is rather exquisite.

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ actually exists in two different versions. BWV668 is included in the 18 Great Chorale Preludes, and actually consists of a fragment (about two thirds) of the entire composition, copied out by someone other than Bach. BWV668a is the same piece, complete, with slight differences, which was included (under the title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’) in the original publication of Art of Fugue, published after Bach’s death in 1751.

“There is a story that was perpetuated by Bach’s son CPE Bach, that his father dictated the chorale directly from his deathbed. This is now considered to be rather flamboyant myth-making, which gave the piece the nickname ‘The Deathbed Chorale’. What is actually now understood to be the case is that BWV668a was a piece that was just lying around (Bach was an inveterate re-worker of old material), which Bach decided to put more work into as he lay dying, meaning that although it was not composed out of nowhere, it was still the very last thing that he worked on, and thus a significant artistic statement.”


Admirable Waikanae chamber music from friends of a non-existant Wilma Smith

Waikanae Music Society
Wilma’s Friends: Martin Riseley (violin), Jian Liu (piano), Nicholas Hancox (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor (the single movement)
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 87

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Monday 26 October, 2:30 pm

This concert was to have been given by ‘Wilma and Friends’ – that is Wilma Smith, the former concertmaster of the New Zealand and Melbourne symphony orchestras; she lives in Victoria and was prevented from travelling; Martin Riseley, head of violin at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University stepped in, as did cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Nicholas Hancox from the NZSO.

‘Wilma and Friends’ has not been a consistent ensemble in the past: earlier, different groups have appeared at a previous Waikanae concert in September 2017 and there was a different programme at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in October 2017; a piano trio was at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February 2019, and the next month in Wellington; with none of the players heard at the present concert.

These players formed at remarkably congenial ensemble, with admirable balance between piano and strings.

The opening piano passages of Mahler’s 16-year-old single movement certainly hint at its orchestral aspirations with its triplet crochets, though it leads to the prominent emergence of Riseley’s meditative violin, though Hancox’s viola often has an equal part to play. Jian Liu’s piano was the perfect accompaniment, moving between the conspicuous and the discreet while Andrew Joyce’s cello always seemed a singular balance between subtlety and the essential of fulfilment.

It’s a sophisticated and imaginative piece that doesn’t outlast its ten or so minutes.

Interestingly, I came across a YouTube comment on the Schnittke elaboration of Mahler’s sketches for the second movement, to the effect that Mahler had left his manuscripts in the archives in Dresden which were destroyed by the terrible Allied bombing at the end of the war. In other words, they’d remained unstudied in Dresden for 35 years. Perhaps copies will eventually turn up in Vienna.

Schumann (not a single one of whose works found a place in Concert FM’s Settling the Score 100, in spite of surprising, quite frequent broadcasts of the symphonies on Concert FM recently) wrote only a few chamber pieces, and the piano quartet and piano quintet are among the best.

This was likewise a lovely performance; the three strings were again in remarkable accord right from the sombre opening in which the piano planted the most discreet remarks. The repeated, contrasting episodes spoke of typical Schumann discretion and genius, and the players knew how to express it, not preparing the audience for Schumann’s unceremonious ending.

The secretive Scherzo too was carried off with a sense of novelty, avoiding any expectation of what a Scherzo usually expresses, just a lot of interesting ppp piano passages leading to the two Trios that are decorated by the fleeting piano-driven insertions of the triple quavers of the Scherzo itself. They again enlightened any non-Schumannesque listener expecting more conventional developments.

Cello and viola take prominent, moving roles again in the Andante and both rewarded attention, and the shift from E flat to G flat minor – not a close relation – might have carried a subtle warning about flawed audience expectations.

It pays to recall Schumann’s literary references to the mythical creations, Eusebius and Florestan, whom he employs in his compositions, and these might illuminate the varied spirits that emerge in each of the movements, particularly in the mostly-Vivace finale.

One of the interesting effects of this performance was to question my normal feeling that Schumann’s piano quintet was more delightful than the quartet.

I had slightly the reverse experience with Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No 2, also in E flat. (Dvořák too wrote a very popular piano quintet – Op 81 which does rather remain a couple of degrees more delightful. Nevertheless, given the fairly limited number of great piano quartets, this one is still among the top five).

The piano is immediately prominent, even emphatic; here, calling for no needless restraint or subtlety. So I refrain from noting that my scribbles might suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the first movement has frequent, typical Dvořák’s characteristics such as delightfully decorated instrumental parts, countless varied themes; these players exhibited both a singular affinity with the music and a mastery of its playing.  The unusual modulation from E flat to G major might have had, no doubt as intended, the injection of seriousness, of unpreparedness, creating a rewarding listening experience.

In the course of this, something brought to mind a common musicological opinion that pianos and string instruments are in fundamental conflict; Dvořák did not think so, nor do I; after all, he was primarily a string player though also a fine pianist.

Cellist Andrew Joyce created a beautiful atmosphere at the start of the long, Lento second movement, which again evoked a meditative feeling, even a disquiet at times. It is not till after about five minutes that it’s possible to agree with the programme notes remark about seriousness and intensity, but the performance complied then, movingly. I was interested to note that, as with Schumann’s third movement (and this obviously comes from reading the score), there’s a modulation from E flat minor to G flat major, which seems to draw warmth from the music, and one wonders how much attention Dvořák had paid to Schumann’s key shifts.

The third movement, which doesn’t follow the tradition of a Scherzo, though it is in triple time, hinting at the Austrian Ländler, opens with a touch of seriousness, not quite an Allegro moderato, serioso perhaps. Nor is the last movement unalloyed joyousness, with substantial subdued passages, that drew attention to Hancox’s’ viola for example, that gently advance towards energetic episodes; occasionally I felt there was too playful a touch, almost flippancy. But there was still a uniform spirit in the playing that did superb justice to this hugely popular piece (again, commenting on Settling the Score, there was indeed a serious scarcity of great chamber music like this; no Beethoven or Haydn or Bartók string quartets – and no Haydn or Bartók at all).

However, this concert and its splendidly attuned musicians was fine consolation for the shortcomings of Monday’s exposure to the limitations of popular knowledge of and affection for such vast quantities of great music.


“Timeless” classics with a twist – latest in the NZSO’s “Podium” Series

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents “Timeless”

Music by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven

MOZART –  Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
HAYDN – Symphony No. 64 in A Major, Hob 1:64 Tempora Mutantur
BEETHOVEN (orch. Weingartner) Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 24th October, 2020

This was the last concert of a tour of five centres. It was a programme of safe music by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, nothing to intimidate a conservative audience, though Beethoven laid down major challenges that audiences have grappled with since the work was first performed by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in 1825. The orchestra was reduced to strings two horns, oboes, clarinets bassoons and a flute. There were no celebrated soloists, but the concert provided an opportunity for section leaders to step back while their places were taken by their associates. The marketing people called the concert Timeless, a title neither meaningful nor particularly appropriate, but it was certainly an evening of fine enjoyable music.

The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, one of three he wrote in 1738 to raise some urgently needed cash. It is the work of a consummate craftsman, who could knock out three substantial, enduring major works in a few weeks. It is the acme of the classical symphonic style. There are musical questions and answers and then contrasting themes, at times played by strings then answered by the winds. Balance is the hallmark of this music. Written in G Minor, this symphony has a dark melancholy undertone, combined with grace and courtly manners. If there is drama, it is understated, but there are echoes of dramatic orchestral passages from the operas. The orchestra gave the work a crisp, restrained reading, with well judged, unhurried tempi. The large string section produced a beautiful full-bodied rich sound. No flourishes, nor exaggerations, no lingering on the lovely themes. It was an honest, straightforward reading.

The Haydn Symphony No.64, Tempora Mutantur is a less well known work, and even among Haydn’s symphonies it is overshadowed by the later symphonies, and even by No. 45, the ‘Farewell’ Symphony. Haydn was in his early forties when he wrote this symphony. Much of his energy at the time was devoted to operas. During his 30 years of employment at the court of Prince Esterházy he was required to deliver at least two operas a week as well as instrumental works, some of which were recycled from his copious earlier works. The title Tempora Mutantur was written on the manuscript of this work. It is a part of a phrase that means “The times change and we change with them”. It is not clear whether this sentiment is reflected in the music. It is certainly has unexpected breaks, themes cut off by contrasting responses. The focal part of the symphony is the beautiful largo, but the entire work is full of Haydn’s surprises, phrases that are interrupted, quiet passages broken by sudden forte. It is, however, very delightful gentle music. Like the Mozart symphony, this was clearly articulated and well played. Though not a popular major concert piece, it was an opportunity to hear a seldom performed work by a much loved composer.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue was written as the final movement of Sting Quartet No. 13 in B flat Major, Op. 130, to follow the ethereally beautiful Cavatina movement. It is an immense double fugue. At the time audiences found it incomprehensible, confusing, and Beethoven was persuaded to write an alternative final movement for the quartet The fugue was published separately as Op. 133. Musicians found it fiendishly difficult to play and audiences were puzzled and bewildered by it. It was like nothing written before. Beethoven, the ultimate master of the sonata form found by then the form constraining. To complete a vast quartet of six movements he wrote a double fugue of over 700 bars of rhythmic violence and often ruthless density of thought1. There are alternate passages of loud, interweaving harsh fugal parts and quiet meditative passages recalling the introduction to the final choral section of the last movement of the 9th symphony. The piece gives the impression that Beethoven, an old man as he thought of himself, was exploring the limits of music. It was music inside the head of a profoundly deaf composer unbound by convention and the boundaries of form. Some felt that there is too much in the music to be contained within the limits of a string quartet, and orchestrated it for a larger ensemble. It was the arrangement by the renowned conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Felix Weingartner, that we heard in this concert. He added basses to the violins violas and cellos, underlining the harmonic base of the fugue. Played by a large body of strings, Beethoven’s original piece for a string quartet appeared to be a completely different work, very powerful, very dramatic and quite overwhelming. Hearing this arrangement recently, I thought that much of the subtlety of the piece written for a string quartet was lost when amplified for a whole string orchestra, but in this performance I appreciated the merit of a chorus of strings emphasizing and underlining Beethoven’s quest.

The Grosse Fuge is a challenging and difficult work for both players and listeners, but at the end of this outstanding performance we felt that we had had a deep, moving and rewarding experience. Yet again, Hamish McKeich proved himself to be a thoroughly reliable steady hand at the helm.

Orchestra Wellington and Sistema Orchestra Hutt Valley in varied and colourful concert

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Jian Liu (piano), plus Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley

Josef Suk; Serenade for Strings in E flat, Op 6
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat, Op 10
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 October, 7:30 pm

This concert was one of Orchestra Wellington’s rather special events, not only in parallel with a rather singular election day that tended to absorb the animated attention of most of the audience before the concert and during the interval, but also sharing the platform of the MFC with another orchestra: the Arohanui Strings. That band was founded in 2010 on the model of the Sistema Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, and is directed by violist Alison Eldredge. It involves about 300 young string players, mainly from the Hutt Valley. Naturally, by no means all participated on Saturday evening.  I guessed there were about thirty promising Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley players, eleven first violins and down to two double basses, plus around 20 very small players who found their way across the front of the stage for the later pieces.

Arohanui Strings
The first piece was the commissioned premiere of Alissa Long’s Domino Effect, which involved both wind and percussion players of Orchestra Wellington, plus a few OW players to give body to the string sections. One of the several curiosities was a three-metre long wind instrument that I thought was a kind of didgeridoo; I’m informed: a ‘Rainstick’.

This more advanced group also played an arrangement of Poor Wayfaring Stranger; then the littlies, some around 5 years old I’d guess, formed a long line across the front, some on special, small cello chairs, to join the orchestra playing, and singing, Ode to Joy, Square Dance and Lean On Me.

Audience delight rested with the simple spectacle of very young children evidently thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed, at the experience of playing with grown-up professionals to an audience approaching 2000.

The result of this preliminary episode was to prolong the concert; it didn’t end till about 10.15pm, a mere 45 minutes more than usual; very few left early – even to catch up on the excitement of the election result!

Suk’s Serenade for Strings
The first piece played by the host orchestra was the lovely Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk, who was a pupil of Dvořák at the Prague Conservatorium. It’s his earliest published piece (1892) and today probably his best loved. (I have some recollection of Suk’s Asrael Symphony played by the NZSO a fair while ago; it didn’t overwhelm me).

In the Serenade, Suk picked up Dvořák’s suggestion for something happier and more charming than what he had previously composed; he was probably inspired by Dvořák’s own Serenade for Strings of 1875; though there were several good earlier examples of the string suite or serenade.

I knew Suk’s early work well enough and this experience only enhanced admiration for its touching, ingenious orchestration; the first movement is immediately enchanting with its tuneful richness and warmth as well as its rhythmic variety and individuality, which the orchestra explored so well. The second movement is in changeable triple time, and soon takes root according to the ‘grazioso’ description. I was particularly captivated by the playing of the long and lovely third movement, Adagio, scored interestingly and subtly, moving about with charming thematic and rhythmic variety. It’s been compared with the ‘Dumka’ style that Dvořák had made famous, rhythmically and emotionally various. The last movement is characteristically brusque, with each group particularly firm and clear.

If, like me, you are often led to explore a class or type of music that is presented itself in a concert, there’s a lot of comparably delightful music: some of Mozart’s divertimenti, to start with; Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48 (1880), which happened to be one of my early teenage experiences from the then 2YC radio (now RNZ Concert), when nothing but entire works were played, presenting no problems for its then large audiences. Then there’s Dvořák’s in E major (1875); Nielsen’s Little Suite for Strings, Op 1 – particularly charming); Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op 20 (once it was second in popularity only to the Enigma Variations); and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite (and the Brook Green Suite is only a little behind it). There’s Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op 40, echoing the Baroque period of Norwegian dramatist Holberg [born 1684, making him a contemporary of Dryden and Pope, Voltaire and Prévost (writer of the Manon Lescaut story)]. A discovery as I put this list together was the charming, seven-movement Idyll, Suite for string orchestra (you wouldn’t recognise its composer, Janáček!). Even later, there’s Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances for string orchestra.

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 1 
The most successful work in the programme might have been Prokofiev’s first piano concerto with Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies at Victoria University’s school of music, as soloist. Like Suk’s piece, this too was a teenage masterpiece. Prokofiev had played it first in Moscow in 1912, again playing it himself and winning at the St Petersburg Conservatorium piano competition in 1914; to the shock and disapproval of many faculty members on account of its originality, invention and flamboyance. I got the full measure of those Prokofiev characteristics in Vienna in 2014 hearing Russian pianists playing all five concertos at the Konzerthaus with the Marjinski Orchestra under Gergiev. Alexei Volodin played No 1.

After brief blasts from horns, shrill flutes and cracking timpani, Jian Liu opened the piano part at once with brilliant, startling sounds; it might have astonished Prokofiev himself. A singular piece for 1911, before The Rite of Spring, it still catches the ear, as much by its rhythmic and harmonic adventurism as by its unconventional shape. The programme named its three normal-sounding movements but in reality there are many quite distinct parts – eleven have been listed by some authorities. It’s taxing enough for the orchestra and there were indeed slight missteps between piano and others but the general impact was of startling bravura and accuracy, not only from the pianist, and a keen awareness of the virtues of pushing the boundaries of musical composition.

Rachmaninov’s 3rd symphony has not the same popularity or scholarly respect as the second, partly a result of his need to concentrate on piano performance after leaving Russia following the overthrow of the Empire in 1917. It was written in the mid-1930s, after the Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra; in some ways it’s more radical than might have been expected in the light of the composer’s earlier works. There were moments of ensemble imperfection, but the overall impression was of energy and liveliness, and considerable flamboyance by brass and percussion. I might have exaggerated my feeling that lead to my notes remarking, in the Allegro vivace section of the second movement, that some of the orchestral passages lacked refinement and discretion; were too flamboyant.

In all however, Rachmaninov’s works, like Sibelius’s symphonies and Strauss’s last operas, remained true to his own integrity, imagination and inspiration, and they steadily gain popularity, ignoring dismissal by the more extreme elements of the Darmstadt/Donaueschingen school.

And so, a work like this, that is certainly a masterpiece by one of the early 20th century’s greatest composers, is steadily regaining favour; in spite of perceived structural weaknesses, it generates compelling interest and pleasure, and we were lucky to have heard it under Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington in such an enthusiastic and committed performance.

The other event of the concert was Taddei’s announcement of the general theme of the orchestra’s 2021 concert series: “Virtuoso”, with cheap tickets as usual, for those booking early.


Dazzling Diabelli Variations from pianist Ya-Ting Liou at St.Andrew’s make an indelible impression

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
BEETHOVEN – Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C Major, Op.120
Ya Ting Liou (piano)

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

Wednesday, 14th October, 2020

The Diabelli Variations, or to give the pieces their proper collective name, “Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C Major, Op.120” represent in their entirety Beethoven’s final and loftiest thoughts concerning the piano and its expressive capabilities.  It’s both characteristic and appropriate that such sublimity of invention on Beethoven’s part should have emanated from such an unprepossessing source.

Thanks to Beethoven’s somewhat free-wheeling biographer, Anton Schindler, the circumstances surrounding the composer’s involvement with this work became over the years interlaced with fanciful legend – that Beethoven scornfully dismissed Diabelli’s Waltz as “a cobbler’s patch” until the latter offered him a considerable fee for a set of variations,  that the composer was so offended at having been given such a poor theme he wrote the 33 Variations on it to rub the insult in, and that he completed the work in no less than three months.

Leaving aside Schindler’s account, we know that in 1819, the publisher, Anton Diabelli, aware of a musical public craving some escapist amusement in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, approached a wide range of composers that included Beethoven and Schubert with the idea of presenting them all with a waltz-theme of his own invention and requesting from each a variation on the theme. This was to be published as a kind of anthology,  one called Vaterländischer Künstlerverein  (The Patriotic Artist’s Club). At the end of the same year over fifty composers had completed their efforts and sent them back to Diabelli. The exception was Beethoven, who had accepted Diabelli’s invitation, and responded with not just one but a number of variations, quickly completing twenty-three, but then setting aside the work for the Missa Solemnis (he had interrupted work on this for the Variations!) and the late piano sonatas.

Early In 1823, Beethoven finished the set, completing thirty-three variations all told, possibly to advance his own efforts with the previously-published 32 Variations in C Minor, or perhaps even having in mind JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with its thirty-two pieces. Whatever the case, the work was published by Diabelli in June of that same year, the publisher actually drawing attention to Bach’s work thus:  –  “……indeed all these variations, through the novelty of their ideas, care in working-out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions, will entitle the work to a place beside Sebastian Bach’s famous masterpiece in the same form.”

To deal with a work of such proportions, both performers and commentators have proposed various kinds of “signpostings” which give some kind of direction to the adventurous listener, ears awash with the sheer extent of the composer’s inventiveness. Today’s performer, Ya-Ting Liou, suggested in her programme note that the work might be thought of as in two parts, the division marked by the cataclysmic Variation 17 (the renowned pianist Alfred Brendel, famous for his performances of the work, called both this and the previous Variation “Triumph”), a sequence characterised by great energy, physicality and exuberance, and one whose aftermath certainly appeared as though the music had suddenly set its sights elsewhere, the following Variation a dialogue or game perhaps between friends or lovers or philosophers, with the exchanges opening up for us enticing realms of equivocal possibility.

But the work responds to a myriad of listening approaches for both listener and performer, whether “large-scale” or “of the moment” – and from the very beginning Ya Ting’s unhurried, detailed and intensely cumulative approach had the effect for me of “gathering in” both broad brush-strokes and detail, so that while one was aware of the contrasts being wrought between each of the variations, one’s concentration on the overall flow was never unduly disturbed. I thought her abilities as a storyteller were outstanding in this respect – whatever the felicitation of the detail, or the sharpness of the contrasts, we never lost the sense of an inexorable forward movement, from realm to wondrous realm glorying in Beethoven’s invention! If one was occasionally tempted to dwell on the particular character of a fragment or a sequence, one was then “taken” in thrall to the next felicitation, at times almost by osmotic means, completely without self-consciousness!

To speak of “highlights” in such a performance of such a work would be to denigrate Ya Ting’s achievement as a whole – rather I prefer to cite certain moments as enjoyable for reasons tailored to each moment’s particular “character”……thus the first of the Variations, the Alla Marcia Maestoso was rightly made more of a “beginning” than the theme at the work’s opening, spacious, processional and attention-grabbing, with orchestral-like contrasting dynamics in places, an almost Musorgsky-like “Promenade” moment with which to commence the journey proper. By contrast, the dreamy, poetic, very “vocal” line of the third L’istesso Tempo Variation made for a piquantly quixotic commentary, with its discursive bass notes trailing off into thoughtful silences, a discourse which the next variation Un poco piu vivace turned into a lovely series of arched “overthrowings” of festooning detail.

One of the abiding qualities of the playing seemed to me to be the pianist’s quality of taking the music “with her” in those variations requiring an abundance of tone rather than merely “driving” it all forwards – thus in Variation 14’s  Grave e maestoso we all were made to “feel” the tread of those broad, resonant steps which seemed to resemble a large ship’s progress through water, a process that seemed like the unfolding of a vision, the piece’s second half delivered with infinite patience and long-breathed surety – quite a journey! By contrast, Ya-Ting was fully engaged in an entirely different way in the “virtuoso roar” of those two Variations, Nos 16 and 17, which for her signalled a “halfway-point” in the work, the strength of each of the hands by turns given a workout in the two pieces, the results an exhilarating engagement with some strong and scintillating music-making.

The work’s second half contained the music the composer penned after returning to his work to write ten more variations to add to the twenty-three he had written in 1819. No.20’s sudden deep bass, following as it does immediately after the excitingly  festive Presto of No.19 was a solemn Andante, one of the most profound of the set, and which commentator Donald Francis Tovey described as “awe-inspiring”. Here, La-Ting seemed to lose herself in thought, the music taking our sensibilities to “different realms” in a wondrously spontaneous-sounding recreation of remarkable stillness. Of course, Beethoven was “setting us up” for the explosion which followed with Variation 21’s Allegro con brio, sudden, incisive trills in the right hand set against tub-thumping chords in the left hand, interspersed with slower triple time sequences. The hand-passing-over jumps produced some inaccurate landings which merely added to the excitement – who dares, wins!

Drollery took over from rumbustiousness in the next Variation, No. 22, none other than a setting of part of  Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leoporello’s opening aria “Notte e giorno faticar” (Night and Day I work), music which shared the same two opening notes with Diabelli’s theme. Another explosive contrast then took place with the following Assai allegro, Variation 23, the pianist’s fingers all over the keyboard, generating incredible momentum, while again, maintaining a coherence of inspiration amid the music’s startling contrasts. Obviously I don’t have the space in the course of a single review to do full justice to this artist’s treatment of so many profoundly insightful moments of through-line amid contrast throughout this work – suffice to say that by some alchemic means she took us with her on what seemed like a seamlessly-flowing journey to the apex of the music’s realms of expression, the concluding variations inspired firstly by Bach, then Handel and finally Mozart, the last of which seemed, in  Tovey’s words, like “a peaceful return home”.

To have such an exposition of genius laid out for us so beautifully and far-reachingly in the course of an otherwise ordinary lunch-hour’s duration seemed to me like a miracle – a gift from life’s variety and inexhaustible capacity to inspire and bring joy, brought to us through the sensibilities and skills of a remarkable pianist.


THe NZSO’s “Monumental” concert…..counting the ways

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

RICHARD STRAUSS – Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings TrV 290
Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra TrV 296
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.62

Emma Pearson (soprano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 9th October, 2020

As much as I’m not a great fan of the use of “catchwords” to describe the content of concerts, such as both the NZSO and the NZSQ have been using to characterise specific events over the past year, I must admit that occasionally the description “hits the spot”, as with the use of the word “Monumental” to describe the orchestra’s most recent concert in Wellington. Though a somewhat “loose” definition, and reining in three otherwise very different pieces of music on this occasion, there was definitely a “monumental” aspect to each of the works played – in fact, it was probably the only commonality the three works shared, certainly sufficient to “bond” our otherwise disparate listening experiences.

Each of the pieces enacted a kind of ritual of human universality, something profound and moving in every case – the tragedy of the opening piece, composer Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, a lament for the destruction of aspects of his homeland’s culture and heritage through warfare, was as profound on both a public and private level as his final composition, “Four Last Songs”, a gorgeously valedictory paean to earthly fulfilment and resignation to the unknown mercies of death. And in the case of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, written in the throes of its composer’s somewhat congenital self-doubt, the music represented a large-scale, self-revelatory quest towards the distant light, the opening “darkness” of the motto theme which was to bear the brunt of the work’s remarkable journey as intense, terse and tightly-woven as anything its composer had previously written, and here confronted with remarkable directness and resolution which won through in the end.

First up was the wholly remarkable Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, a veritable cri de coeur from the pen of Germany’s foremost composer of the age, Richard Strauss. For much of the first part of the twentieth century the darling of those wishing to uphold and glory in the idea of German pre-eminence in musical composition, Strauss’s fortunes under Hitler’s Third Reich seemed confirmed after the composer was made President of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau, in 1933. Disillusionment for the composer soon set in with the authorities’ disapproval of his collaboration with a Jewish writer as librettist for his newest opera, and of his refusal to enact discriminatory policies against Jewish musicians – he was forced to resign from his post, and his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren were threatened with incarceration, as were a number of his daughter-in-law’s relatives, many of whom were to be eventually exterminated.

In the informative programme note for the Metamorphosen, a 1945 diary entry by the composer was quoted, revealing Strauss’s long-term feelings towards the Nazi regime – “Twelve years of the rule of bestiality, ignorance and illiteracy under the greatest criminals”. But even more heartfelt was the anguish of the composer at one of the immediate legacies of Nazi rule, the destruction by Allied bombing of some of the most significant German opera houses and concert halls – Strauss is further quoted regarding a particular instance of this tragic loss, that of the Munich Court Theatre – “…..where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances…… (and) where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years – it was the greatest catastrophe of my life….”

The most tangible result of the composer’s grieving for the loss of German culture was his writing of Metamorphosen, a work that links to Bach in its contrapuntal mastery, and to Beethoven in its direct quotation of the latter’s Funeral March from the “Eroica” Symphony (in the score Strauss inserts the comment “In Memoriam!” next to this quotation). One commentator whose thoughts on these references I found described critical conjecture regarding their significance as “a can of worms”, leading to a comparison of Strauss’s murky early relationship with Hitler and the Nazis with Beethoven’s initial admiration for Napoleon, with both composers coming to express their disillusionment in musical terms. Others have pointed to Strauss’s copied references to a poem of Goethe’s in the former’s sketches for Metamorphosen, a poem that expresses the elusiveness of self-knowledge, a finding of “the true being within”, and one which perhaps found a sombre realisation in the music. The truth of it all remains a mystery.

I was shocked when checking previous Middle C reviews of the NZSO’s playing of this work to find that I’d last reviewed a performance no less than TEN (!) years ago, one conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director Pietari Inkinen. On that occasion I remembered the stunning “choreographic” effect of the performance highlighted by the musicians (apart from the cellists) standing up to play, the actual placement of the players underpinning the multi-strandedness of the work by ensuring their visibility. In other words it was a feast for the eye as well as for the ear to “watch” as well as “hear” the interactions of the separate lines, the group resembling a “monumental” piece of clockwork in irrevocable motion.

If the visual element was rather less-pronounced in this performance (the players more tightly-grouped around their conductor), the actual musical texture by way of what I remembered of the earlier performance seemed tighter, something probably accentuated by the players’ closer grouping. It should be mentioned that there aren’t twenty-three solo strings “going at it” for the whole time, nor are each of the strands entirely independent – the ninth and tenth violins, the fifth viola, the fifth ‘cello and all three double basses spend much of their time “doubling” with other instruments, in places to add volume to particular melodic phrases – but even so, the work is still a staggering contrapuntal achievement on the part of the composer, and a real test of an interpreter’s ability to make almost half-an-hour’s worth of luscious-sounding string-playing cohere with sufficient variety.

Here we were treated to gorgeously rapt opening sounds from the lower strings, the violas then introducing the oft-to-be-repeated fragment from the Eroica’s slow movement, and the violins joining in with the work’s gradual and dignified “terracing”, the full complement of players eventually engaged as the music intensified into a richly-upholstered sound-texture. As the work progressed, the mood seemed almost celebratory, the lines swaying and soaring as if in the grip of some kind of ecstatic memory – but Hamish McKeich’s direction allowed for plenty of ebb-and-flow of tone and texture with numerous solo and concerted detailings – a series of paired-note exhortations led to a full-blooded outburst, the playing florid and impassioned, when suddenly, the music plunged into minor-key darkness, long sostenuto lines, and with the “Eroica” quotation dominating the heartfelt and deeply-wrought a sense of desolation at the piece’s end.

One might have thought it was piling Pelion upon Ossa in programming the composer’s final composition Vier Letzte Lieder “Four Last Songs” immediately after the equally valedictory Metamorphosen – but though three of the four songs have death as their abiding theme, the music and texts display a calm, accepting, even welcoming character in response to the words’ “end-of-life” scenarios. Composed in 1948 at the age of 84, Strauss never intended these songs to be his “last” works (the title by which they’re known collectively today was bestowed on them by a publisher), though he was undoubtedly aware that his end was near – he had actually wanted to write five songs altogether, but only managed four, the first with words by Joseph von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot
(At Sunset), and the remainder with texts by Hermann Hesse. Together they make a near-perfect sequence, with the first-composed Im Abendrot placed last, as Strauss intended, though he left no instructions regarding the order of the others, which was chosen by the publisher also responsible for their collective title.

My previous encounter with the voice of Emma Pearson, the soprano soloist for these songs this evening, was the New Zealand Opera Company’s 2017 Carmen, in which she played a sweet-voiced, engaging Micaela – but even more memorable was her earlier (2012) astonishing portrayal of Gilda in the Company’s 2012 Rigoletto, which prompted me to comment at the time on her winning combination of “silvery tones, physical beauty and add-water vulnerability”. So I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with her voice and presence, and, happily, wasn’t disappointed.

After a properly dark and turbulent opening to the music, the singer’s opening phrases of the first song, Frühling, rose clearly and confidently aloft, easily penetrating the orchestral fabric and demonstrating a ready responsiveness to the musical ebb-and-flow with an ear-catching variation of tone – a voice which could both soar and float, expressing by turns the text’s exhilaration and tranquility at the onset of Spring. Some exquisite detailing by the orchestral winds marked the opening of the second song, September, with Pearson’s focused direct tones delineating the garden in mourning and the chill of the dying summer – her vocal control allowed her to “resonate” with the instrumental strands in places, and then transfix us with a phrase of great beauty. Singer and conductor shaped the song’s final paragraph, voice and instruments dovetailing sublimely to create at the end a kind of floating strand of sound taken up with lump-in-the-throat poignancy by Sam Jacobs’ noble horn tones.

Another dark beginning to a song came with the third Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep), one which gently roused itself to greet the singer’s entry, a perfect marriage of tones and impulses, Pearson’s voice sounding like a devout prayer with the phrase “Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht” (Now the day has wearied me) before gloriously conveying the “yearning” quality of the following “Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen” (Shall my ardent longing…), her attack on the high exposed notes of the purest quality. There were great exchanges between the singer and solo instrumental lines, including a sequence for solo violin which Vesa-Matti Leppanen delivered gloriously, and to which Pearson replied with almost Wagnerian sweep and grandeur at her re-entry, the music flowing unstoppably, with a gorgeous concluding vocal phrase, “TIef und tausendfach zu leben” (It may live deeply and a thousandfold), and a cherishable coda, horn, strings and wind distilling moments of rapt beauty.

After this, the final song Im Abendrot was a kind of release, a “letting go” (as suggested by the text, with its final line “Is this perhaps death?”), Pearson responding to the great orchestra outburst at the beginning, and to the horns’ brief but radiant salute with calm surety, her voice working with rather than against the orchestral tapestries in replicating the text’s description of a world going to sleep, the flutes’ song of the larks rising like fireflies from out of the darkness. From the rapture emerged the big vocal line at “So rief im Abendrot” (So profound in the Sunset), Pearson’s tones not as clean in the taking of the highest note as she might have liked, but still glorious, after which the solo horn gently underpinned the singer’s final, almost murmured words, leaving conductor and orchestra to suggest the light and spaces beyond the concluding birdsong and the fading light – a marvellous achievement!

As with all performances of a certain “quality”, having some time immediately afterwards to savour a particular listening experience is a joy in itself, which the interval at this concert duly provided. And then it was back to our seats afterwards for our third “monumental” journey of the evening, with both the terrain and the means of traversal fascinatingly different, the piece being the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, to my way of thinking the most “classical” of the Russian composer’s works in this genre while being imbued with just as much “Russian” spirit, colour and atmosphere as any. It was the first Tchaikovsky symphony I got to know, and I can still hear the “sidebreaks” in the 78rpm acetate discs recording I’d got from my grandmother’s “Vinnie’s” shop when a student!

Absolutely superb clarinet playing from Patrick Barry began the symphony with the “motto” theme that dominated the work, here keeping the phrases moving rather than dwelling on their brooding, intensely Russian character. A bassoon joined the clarinet as a kind of “middle voice”, creating an ear-catching flavour as the hushed, but sturdily-sprung march began, the winds “shading” rather than accenting their phrases in rising to the crescendo. The strings joined the march, energised by the rushing, gurgling wind-detailings, preparing for the brass entry, the sounds excitingly layered to cumulative effect. Hamish McKeich didn’t pull the contrasting string phrase around too much, letting it naturally expand at first, but giving it more emotional juice a bit later, the climax slightly anticipated, I thought, by the brass, but still nicely controlled, the horns surviving a “blip” with their very first of a set of fanfares, the music developing some exciting exchanges between sections, until the bassoon led the music’s way back to its recapitulation – some lovely augmented decoration of the theme by winds this time round!

Next, my favourite Tchaikovsky symphonic slow movement got a superb reading, begun in grand style with Sam Jacob’s playing of the opening horn theme, drawing the sounds, it seemed, from out of the air as the music proceeded, the oboe drawing away in a different direction with another theme, followed by the horn and supported by the other winds and the lower strings – out of this came the somewhat Elgarian THIRD melody from the strings, the “phrase-point” of the melody not QUITE achieved at its climax, but the intention was manifestly there! What a movement this is! – and was, here, with the winds instigating a FOURTH theme, supported by the strings and turned into a tremendous “statement of entry” for the motto theme from the work’s beginning! A few poised pizzicato steadyings, and the music set off , revisiting most of the material presented thus far and joining in with an even more impassioned repetition of the “Elgar-but-not-Elgar” theme (so very exciting and this time PROPERLY snow-capped when it eventually descended!!), and a sudden, dramatic return of the motto on vehement brasses and roaring timpani! Thank goodness for the music’s solicitous return to a more elegiac mood, beautifully finished by the clarinet.

Rather incongruously “salon-like” when it first began, the third-movement waltz’s whirling figurations generated ever-increasing clout as the music tirelessly spun its ensnaring lines around and about our sensibilities, the wind-playing an absolute joy to experience, and the strings tireless in their evocations of diaphanous enchantment. The finale, too, exerted its own rumbustious kind of ebb and flow, the motto theme opening rich and proud at first but soon finding itself under siege and taken on a whirlwind journey, brasses declaiming, timpani roaring and strings suddenly goaded into action! I wasn’t sure that the first of the two cataclysmic crescendi in the Allegro vivace hit the spot exactly, but the brass gave a good account of the motto theme amid the rest of the orchestra’s “Francesca da Rimini-like” agitations, and the  orchestral ferment held up brilliantly here until the Maestoso opening returned with its by-now triumphant theme, a whirlwind coda rounding off the jubilant mood. Bravo!

Footnote: Despite some almost Hanslick-like reactions from various contemporary commentators, the work was enthusiastically received in Europe, less so in America – in some ways we are in my opinion somewhat the poorer in our time through invoking blanket “politically correct” disapproval of any comment characterising any ethnic group as indulging in almost any sort of behaviour, as witness what the music correspondent for New York’s “Musical Courier” wrote in 1889 “……One vainly sought for coherency and homgeneousness…in the last movement the composer’s Calmuck blood got the better of him, and slaughter, dire and bloody, swept across the storm-drive score!” Sir Thomas Beecham might have exclaimed approvingly (as he did once, in an entirely different context) – “Gad! – what a critic!”



A programme of brilliantly scored Romantic era music from Wellington Youth Orchestra

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre, Op 40
Weber: Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E flat, Op 74 (clarinet: Ben van Leuven)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol, Op 34
Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 4 October, 3 pm

The listing in Middle C’s Coming Events had misread details about this concert; the conductor was identified as Miguel Harth-Bedoya. In fact, he had conducted a rehearsal of the orchestra  a few weeks before.

But there would be no need to attribute the splendid performances on Sunday directed by Mark Carter to anyone but Mark Carter. To begin, it was a colourful programme of music that would have excited any young players (and plenty of old ones, speaking for myself) to which they responded vigorously.

The only one of the four works in the programme likely to have been played recently might have been the Mussorgsky; though the Weber clarinet concerto may be somewhat unfamiliar, both the Saint-Saëns and the Rimsky-Korsakov would surely have been known. I’m not at all sure however, being aware of the declining condition of the Concert Programme and the domination of young people by pops. All four works on the programme deserve to be played by major orchestras to today’s audiences.

Danse macabre 
Both were familiar to any 2YC listener when I was young; the symphonic poem, Danse macabre, though it was not always in its authentic orchestral version (1874); nor is it today. It was an excellent choice for the Youth Orchestra since it’s full of gripping melody and convincing mood music. Here there was no introductory harp but a bold solo violin (Lukas Baker), a nice flute solo (Samantha Sweeney), proceeding with macabre triple time that portrayed the spirit of the Victor Hugo poem so well. The brass might have been a bit overly exuberant, but the whole worked as an excellent, overture-length piece.

Weber Clarinet concerto 
Weber’s second clarinet concerto is one of his not-much-played works. These days Weber is represented mainly by excerpts from Der Freischütz and The Invitation to the Dance (though it’s Berlioz’s orchestration that’s mostly heard). Weber was a friend of notable clarinettist, Heinrich Baermann, and he wrote two concertos, a concertino and a clarinet quintet for him. Among Weber’s other music that should be familiar are two symphonies, two piano concertos and a Konzertstück in F minor (which I have recordings of), a lot of other attractive orchestral and chamber music and several operas other than Freischütz that made Weber an important inspiration for Wagner twenty years later.

The second clarinet concerto is colourful and attractive, and there were successful instrumental episodes before Benedict van Leuven’s delightful clarinet part entered, with a number of challenging leaps from top to bottom of its range. Though there are nice passages for bassoons, oboe, horns as well as the strings, it was the clarinet that led the way with confidence and distinction. It was the second movement however, A Romanze, Andante con moto, where the clarinet demonstrated not merely his dexterity, but also in the pensive episodes, his feeling for the warm, emotional and subtle colours of Weber’s orchestration.

The last movement, Alla Polacca, revived the joyousness of the first movement, with its bars-full of virtuosic semi-quavers, with amusing chirpy phrases that all too soon brought it to the end.

Capriccio Espagnol 
Another once familiar symphonic poem was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol (my early love of is evidenced by a set of 78 rpm shellac discs by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent, bought in the mid 1950s!). The opening was rowdy with dominant timpani, that offered little room for discretion, but plenty of opportunities for displays of orchestral skill. Rimsky was one of the most celebrated orchestrators (his Principles of Orchestration is, along with Berlioz’s Grand Treatise on Instrumentation, among the classic texts on the subject), offering many opportunities for individual talent and prowess to be admired: a flute solo, oboes, the five horns and three trombones, as well as general orchestral colour.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Finally, yet another masterpiece of orchestration – Ravel’s translation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He wrote it for piano (an overwhelmingly challenging composition it is), and as with several of Mussorgsky’s other works, it was subjected to editing and ‘refinement’ by his friends, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov.

It wasn’t long after Mussorgsky’s early death in 1881 that orchestrations of Pictures began to appear. There have been several orchestral versions, some taking liberties with the music and omitting certain sections. Ravel’s, in 1922, has become universally admired.

The orchestration is wonderfully rich and though not all of the instruments that Ravel called for were employed (harps were missing for example), there were tubular bells, celeste, alto saxophone and (I think) glockenspiel and euphonium. And the lively, high spirited way Mark Carter guided the orchestra was distinguished by its clarity and ebullience.

The performance of such exuberant, noisy orchestration in St Andrew’s has in the past been rather overwhelming, especially from brass and percussion. However, the fact that I was sitting near the back of the gallery may have helped the balance between the more discreet and the noisier instruments. In any case, orchestral balance was successfully managed throughout, and both players and audience (there was virtually a full house) would have had a great time.


Riveting performances by the Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington of works by Faure and Rachmaninoff

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington present:

FAURE – Requiem in D Minor Op.48
RACHMANINOFF – The Bells  Op.35

Margaret Medlyn (soprano), Jared Holt (tenor), Wade Kernot (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 3rd October, 2020

Under the circumstances of Covid-19 and its world-wide strictures, I’m truly grateful, along with so many others, to be living in a place where activities such as concerts of the quality of that which I attended in the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday evening could even happen, let alone be enjoyed so freely and readily. Given in the same week as the NZSO’s inspiring “Eroica” concert conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Orchestra Wellington’s equally uplifting collaboration with a sonorous and versatile Orpheus Choir made for a week’s fascinating and rewarding diversity of orchestral activity. I admit to being tempted into writing an all-out notice of lament that this particular concert in the Orchestra’s “Rachmaninoff season” didn’t “go for broke” here in presenting a couple more of the composer’s choral works instead of Gabriel Faure’s beautiful but oft-played Requiem – has Wellington ever heard the Russian composer’s achingly lovely “Spring” Cantata for baritone, choir and orchestra, or his enchanting “Three Russian Folksongs”?  What a programme, together with “The Bells” that would have made! But one must be grateful at the chance to hear “The Bells” in concert at all, and especially in such a vibrant and idiomatic performance as here. Perhaps on a future occasion………

Here was, in any case, a fascinating contrast of compositional styles and idioms presented via a pair of masterworks from composers whose music, though not exactly contemporary, emanated from the same late-Romantic Age (Faure’s Requiem in its final form dates from 1900, Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells“ from 1913), even though each couldn’t be more different in its expression! Though the Faure Requiem’s performance here was never going to give the impression of a church ambience in such surroundings as the Michael Fowler Centre and with a choir of the Orpheus’s size, there was in fact a historical precedent for the numbers involved, with the final, augmented version of the composer’s work receiving its premiere in 1900 at the famed Palais Trocadéro in Paris, fellow-composer Paul Taffenel conducting forces numbering 250 performers.

Conductor Marc Taddei most thrillingly took the course of utilising the choir’s tonal resources for intensely dramatic effect, with the group’s music director Brent Stewart’s expert training and leadership evident in the singing’s control of dynamics and overall shaping of the sounds throughout.  Right from the intensely focused opening Requiem aeternam we relished the controlled honing of the words’ purpose, the “et lux perpetua” thrilling in its outpouring of light and strength, the “luceat eis” a more prayerful supplication. Everything was here underpinned by finely-wrought orchestral playing, with the opening largo becoming andante, and the strings’ counterpointing the tenors’ fervent repetition of the words “Requiem aeternam” – I liked also the almost fiery cries of “exaudi” immediately after the loveliness of the sopranos’ “Te decet hymnus”, emphasising once again the drama of the text’s contrasts, which continued throughout the invocations of the Kyrie and Christe sequences.

A smaller number of voices in a more intimate setting would perhaps have found even more flavoursome nuances in the Offetoire with the repetitions of “O Domine Jesu Christe”, but the “terracing” of these supplications was finely placed, aided by the delicacy and sensitivity of the orchestral playing, the string harmonies reminding me in places (just before the “Hostias”) of some of Vaughan Williams music, Faure’s evocation of “the insubstantiality of lost souls wandering among the abysses”. After these exhortations, how beautiful was the entry of the bass with his “Hostias”, Wade Kernot a touch hesitant here and there, not inappropriate in such a context, but managing to convey enough of the music’s major-key optimism to ease the burden of suffering so tellingly engendered by the music.

A performance highlight for me was the Sanctus, for a number of familiar reasons at first, the celestial tones of the harp, the purity of the women’s and the sonority of the men’s voices, the ethereal playing of the orchestra, all contributed to a sense of ever-burgeoning bliss and radiance, but which then burst forth with unprecedented glory at the introduction to the words “Hosanna in excelsis”, the horns  here for once casting aside all inhibitions and filling the spaces with golden-toned exhortations and resonances, the like of which I’d never before experienced in a live performance, the voices matching the full-bloodedness of the exultation – this was always a moment I’d considered special, but on this occasion one that infused me with incredible joy and excitement at having experienced a kind of long-awaited fulfilment of the music’s promise! – unforgettable!

Normally the Pie Jesu which follows straight on works for me as a kind of corrective to such excess as I’ve described – a cleansing, even a purifying kind of experience which straightaway takes me elsewhere, far from any festive or revelric scenario. I was therefore not a little dismayed at hearing Margaret Medlyn’s voice making such heavy weather of the music’s stratospheric lines, though I had thought it odd that she would be performing it anyway, as her voice has always seemed to me more suited to dramatic roles far removed from the ethereal delicacies of Faure’s music in this instance – something of an evocation of, in William Blake’s words, “a world in a grain of sand”. As it proved she appeared far more at home in the Rachmaninoff which followed after the interval – she was obviously going to always be the choice for the soprano soloist in this work (I still remember a stunning recital featuring some Rachmaninoff songs she and pianist Bruce Greenfield gave on a celebrated occasion – – but surely it’s a voice that would always have been unsuited to Faure’s Pie Jesu? I’m only sad to find myself less than enthusiastic about a performance by a singer whose work I’ve deeply admired in the past, but in vastly different music…..

The serene opening of the Agnus Dei was but the beginning of a journey which took us through contrasting episodes of lyrical beauty (orchestra and tenor voices at the beginning), rapt communion  (those “Wotan’s Farewell”-like chromatic soprano descents at “Lux aeterna”) and blazing fervour (the “quia pius est” pleading from choir and orchestra just before the reprise of the very opening of the work, the choir positively incendiary at “et lux perpetua”!). Then, with the dark, throbbing “Libera Me” we seemed back in the underworld, Wade Kernot’s suitably dark tones secure with the music’s gravitas and direct focus, and the choir creating real frisson with the cries of “Dies illa, dies irae” over throbbing timpani, pulsating organ and louring brass, the horns again superb! The bass’s awe-struck but tender return to the final moments of  the “Libera Me” beautifully signalled a “coming through”, with the organ pedal at the end suggesting something of the abyss over which we had just been taken.

In a sense, the journey’s end came with the “In Paradisum”, the organ positively seraphic at the outset (though nothing I’ve heard anywhere matches the instrument on Andre Cluytens’ EMI recording at this point for sheer beauty!), the voices similarly angelic, the overall atmosphere quietly ecstatic, as befits where we’d been taken to. And yes, I remembered finding myself thinking at this point that it would have been nice to have heard those other Rachmaninoff works I mentioned, but this in nearly all of its parts certainly “did it” for me, thanks to all concerned. Nevertheless, I was glad of the interval’s “quantum leap” therapy, in preparation for what we were about to hear.

A pity we couldn’t have somehow had texts and translations on hand for the Rachmaninoff work, delivered as it was in a Russian translation by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont of Edgar Allan Poe’s original poem, more of a transliteration, really, which gave an unsurprisingly “Russian” view of Poe’s imagery, dispensing with some of the repetitions and adding peculiarly Russian contextual images and ambiences – Balmont himself called it “an adaptation, more an imitation than a translation”. Besides Rachmaninoff’s own native pessimism of outlook, it all reflected a kind of prophetic sense of impending doom at the failure of the ruling Romanov dynasty to address the life-threatening issues facing many of the Russian people at that time, a situation that was to catastrophically resolve itself in 1917 with the Revolution. Though I’m hardly conversant with the language, I found its peculiar version of Slavic exoticism certainly made a visceral effect, thanks to sterling efforts by the soloists and the chorus, the SOUNDS of the words mirroring the characteristic textures of Rachmaninoff’s music throughout.

The work as a whole could be characterised as a journey from light to darkness over the four movements, and also a life’s journey from carefree youth to impending death. Equally it’s a compendium of human experience refracted through several peoples’ creative processes, with the composer tying the threads together in his music. So the opening “Silver Sleigh Bells” was a kind of magical awakening to a bright, crystalline Russian winter’s day, an instrumental sequence depicting something of a “Jingle Bells” scenario, the music’s scintillating progress halted by the tenor’s arresting “Slyshish!” (Listen!) and then (in a moment which equalled the frisson of the horns’ playing in the “Sanctus” of Faure’s Requiem) the choir broke the poised silence with a tumultuous repetition of the tenor’s single word! – nothing could go wrong from that moment on in the performance, such was its brilliance, depth and resonance of conviction! Tenor soloist Jared Holt I thought did an absolutely splendid job, timing the delicacies of his word-painting with great skill, while conveying terrific energy in his more declamatory utterances.The celebratory mood gradually evolved to one of reflections of “sweet oblivion” as the chorus atmospherically hummed its lines, with string harmonics glistening and eerily whispering, until, roused by the tenor at “Sani mchatsya”, chorus and orchestra built the excitement and volume towards a veritable tsunami of sound which broadened magnificently into a peroration of utter splendour, and then gradually dying to the merest whisper.

Ironically the first few measures of the second movement “Mellow Wedding Bells” featured the first four notes of Rachmaninoff’s “signature motif” the medieval plainchat “Dies irae”, one that grew in intensity before being augmented by the yearning choral voices, counterpointed by a dying fall line from the strings, one which evolved into a romantic meditation upon a pair of eyes gazing at the moon. Margaret Medlyn plunged into her lush lines with total involvement as the orchestral strings and winds conjured up an “Isle of the Dead”-like web of intensities, together with different bells adding their voices to the panoply of interlocking lines and single notes that characterised this movement – the soprano line rose to ecstatic heights when describing the “fairy-tale joy” of the bells pouring their holy blessing on the future. The “Dies irae” chant returned to inform the choral lines with thoughts of “a future where sleeps a tender peace” as the bells continued their blessings, leaving the last word to a descending pair of clarinets.

Following this was the “Loud Alarum Bells” chorus-and-orchestra scherzo, here another performance tour de force, right from the beginning – instrumental warning signals came in a crescendo of panic, before the voices’ conflagration of terror and confusion raged and roared, a “tale of horror, hurling cries into the night” in a frenzy of fear. The music’s sudden downward plunge into a brief trough of despair seemed as frightening and harrowing as the confrontational ferment which reared up again, the Orpheus Choir members displaying incredible energy and committed engagement towards realising the volatility of the composer’s writing. The sheer clamour enlivened even the Michael Fowler Centre, normally not renowned for its immediacy of sound, building up towards the movement’s end to a visceral assault on our listening sensibilities, but one which we wouldn’t have missed for worlds! A gloomily introspective lull towards the end was savagely interrupted by a brief but abruptly decisive payoff, the ensuing bruised-and-battered silence as devastating as was the music itself!

Completing the life-cycle, the survey, the picture, was the final movement “Mournful Iron Bells”, characterised by the poet as “the sound of bitter sorrow, ending the dream of a bitter life”. Here, Rachmaninoff used the mournful strains of the cor anglais to characterise the opening mood, creating an incredibly “laden” sound-picture, the singer (Wade Kernot) intoning his solo supported by an overwhelmingly fatalistic orchestral backdrop, the detailing here almost unnervingly vivid and impactful. Together, singer, choir, conductor and players brought about a heartfelt climax with the words “Vyrastayet v dolgiy gul” (It grows into an endless cry!), before the brasses hinted once again at the “Dies Irae” chant then brutally helped energise the music at “Someone shrieks from the belfry!”, hammering home the bass’s words, allowing for no hope – only terror, pity and hopelessness. After the singer’s final bitter pronouncement of  “…i pratyazhno vazveshchayet a pakoye grabavom” (slowly proclaiming the stillness of the grave), the music suddenly lightened, drifting into the major key and offering a concluding glimmer of consolation.

Together with his “All Night Vigil” Op.37, written in 1915, “The Bells” can be said to be one of the composer’s self-avowed favourite works, worthy of a regular place in the choral repertoire. The work, heard “live” was a revelation for me, and must have been for many others who attended. Grateful thanks are due to both Marc Taddei and Brent Stewart, the respective Music Directors of Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, for enabling a performance that will, I’m certain, stay in the memory of those who heard it as marking a precious occasion.