Camerata – continuing the joy of new discovery with Haydn at St.Peter’s-on-Willis.St Church

HAYDN – Symphony No. 12 in E (1763) Hob.1/12
Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D Major, Hob.VIIb:2

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Camerata  (Anne Loeser – leader and concertmaster)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis St. Church

Saturday, 20th February, 2021

I do have recordings of Haydn’s early symphonies (part of the first-ever “complete” recorded cycle of the works made back, it now seems, when Adam was a boy, by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica), but prior to attending each of Camerata’s concerts featuring these works I didn’t make a point of listening to them. This was because I wanted to experience as far as possible that “thrill of excitement” at hearing something new, which this ensemble and its leader, Anne Loeser delivers in spadefuls every time (excuse the somewhat agricultural metaphor, but its earthy aspect seems here to admirably suit the invigorating “al fresco” quality of both music and performance!).

What a delight was provided by the opening of the E major No.12 – an innocent, “conversational” phrase suddenly energised  with attack, light, and colour, augmented by horns and winds to which the St.Peter’s acoustic gave a lovely “bloom”, the whole conveying a kind of existentialist joy which must have galvanised the sensibilities of the work’s early Esterhazy listeners, if the performance had anything of Camerata’s joie de vivre, here. I loved, too, the sudden descent into the unknown with the development’s beginning, moments of minor-key mystery, as quickly chased away by the reappearance of the sun through the clouds. The sounds all had both a “play” and “play with” aspect which conveyed a sense of the players relishing the work’s colours, energies and contrasts.

A sombre but graceful Siciliano made up the second, E minor-key movement, its decorum occasionally ruffled by impulsive strands shooting upwards or plunging downwards, something in the style of CPE Bach, I thought, the whole a compelling encapsulation of melancholy. It was all chased away in no uncertain terms by the work’s Presto finale, with the ample acoustic seeming at first to make the rushing figurations sound less crisp than they were actually played, something the ear then “sorted out” better at the repeat.  Again, both the ear-catching dynamics and occasional unison energies reminded me of CPE Bach, and brought home the idea of the latter’s influence on a whole generation of composers – “He is the father – we are the children”, said no less a person than Mozart. The driving energy of this finale, with its potent dynamic contrasts swept our sensibilities along in grand style, somewhat belying, I thought, the writer of the otherwise excellent programme note’s assertion that the symphony was “a slight, intimate work”. How differently people hear and interpret the same music!

I had been occasionally “peeping” at a post concerning a 2016 UK Classic FM project involving the Haydn Symphonies, one in which a single commentator was asked to listen to and “rate” all 104 of them in order of what he considered their “merits”. To my surprise this symphony was put at slot No.101 by the adjudicator with dismissive comments such as “a fun bit of fluff”, and “a lot of composing by numbers, especially the PONDEROUS slow movement” (Heavens! – whose performance was he listening to?), and finishing with a bit of a kick down the stairs, vis-à-vis – “Not without interest, but there’s so much better to come!” (Incidentally, it doesn’t say anywhere in the post whose recordings the hapless listener was auditioning.) To my mind, all the exercise proves is the point I made in the last paragraph – that we all hear music and its performance quite differently!

A more “tried and true” work for concertgoers was the ‘Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major (Hob.VIIb:2) which was considered for a long time (a) to be the work of a contemporary of Haydn, Anton Kraft, a cellist of some repute, and then (b) to be Haydn’s only effort in this genre. The work was given the extra title No. 2 when a manuscript of an earlier, cheekier and spunkier work turned up in 1961, and was dated as an earlier work than the D Major concerto by the scholars.

Andrew Joyce was the soloist, well-known as the NZSO’s Principal ‘Cellist and as a chamber musician in Wellington, regularly performing with the Puertas Quartet (which he founded), and exploring the chamber repertoire with various colleagues. He seemed right in his element here, joining in with a will in the opening orchestral tutti of the concerto, and winningly projecting his smokily attractive tone at his first soloist’s entry, bringing to the writing a plaintive, lyrical quality in the solo line during the first interchanges with the ensemble. Later he brought out plenty of the quixotic aspect of Haydn’s writing with some deft fingerwork and bowing, illustrating how the music “dances” its way through much of the movement’s terrain. I liked also the vein of melancholy which coloured the music just after the return of the recapitulation’s first subject, the beautifully half-lit notes which rounded the phrases most beguiling, as did the passages in sixths (?) between the soloist and the orchestral violins. An extraordinarily virtuosic cadenza, somewhat apart from the character of the movement as a whole, produced some exciting, full-stretch playing to finish!

The second movement gently lulled us into a reverie, the soloist supported by the orchestral strings, before the full orchestra repeated the opening, leading to a subsidiary theme which was loveliness in both itself and the playing. Such was the delicacy of it all that every detail could be heard, the contrast with a brief moment of minor-key angst making its point before passing as quickly as it came; and the cadenza just as briefly reaffirming the music’s inclination towards beauty of utterance.

The Rondo-finale’s graceful opening trajectories allowed for both elegant lines and subsequent mischievous energising figurations on the soloist’s part. Andrew Joyce left us in no doubt as to the work’s capacity for generating excitement, with some spectacular jumps and runs, and at one particularly and excitingly trenchant point, some especially nifty octave double stopping pricking up our ears! The whole left behind in no uncertain terms any expectation of this work being a relatively “contained and well-mannered” classical piece, the music’s energies infusing the final tutti with a truly joyous and festive quality that brought forth great acclamation from the near-capacity audience at the end.

We were generously given an encore, something I didn’t know, and guessed that it might be Scandinavian! – it turned out to be a piece by Max Reger, “Lyric Andante”, its lyricism seeming to carry both warmth and a hint of remoteness, the cello in concert with the ensemble at first, but with a solo line in a subsequent sequence – a lovely, sonorous conclusion to the concert.


Vibrant Concerti Grossi old and new light up a refurbished Old St.Paul’s in Thorndon

Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust of NZ, in partnership with
University of Canterbury Music presents:

Mark Menzies – Solo Violin / Tomas Hurnik – Solo ‘Cello
Ensemble of participants in Baroque Music Workshop 2021
Rakuto Kurano, Ashley Leng, Leo Liu, Henry Nicholson, Jack Tyler, Thomas Bedggood (violins)
Rebecca Harris (viola) / Daniel Ng (cello) / Frederick Bohan-Dyke, Oliver Jenks (harpsichord)

Old St.Paul’s, Thorndon, Wellington

Monday, 16th February, 2021

I was thrilled beyond words when told that this concert would take place in the breathtakingly beautiful Old St/ Paul’s Church in Thorndon, a building which extensive earthquake-strengthening renovations had closed to the public for so long! So for me it was like greeting an old friend when walking through the church’s entranceway for the New Baroque Generation’s Wellington concert, one which concluded the ensemble’s enterprising “11 concerts in 16 days” tour of the country.

This initiative, set up by the Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust along with the University of Canterbury Music included an intensive week-long workshop on baroque instrumental practices as well as the aforementioned concert tour. At the forefront of the project were two well-known professional musicians – violinist Mark Menzies and Czech baroque specialist and cellist, Tomas Hurnik – under whose guidance the musicians who attended the workshop were able to put their newly-honed skills into practice over the duration.

The concert included a new work especially commissioned for the tour, one specifically designed for the project, a neo-baroque work by emerging composer Rakuto Kurano, a violinist in the touring ensemble. The work formed the finale of a concert devoted to that most baroque of all musical forms, the Concerto Grosso, of which we heard various representative examples from that “era”. Apart from Rakuto Kurano’s splendid work, the one which surprised me the most was by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), a composer I’d hitherto associated almost exclusively with vocal works.

Basically a “Concerto Grosso” features a small grouping of instruments interacting with a larger ensemble, instead of a single instrument being pitted against an orchestra in a standard “concerto”. My introduction to the “Concerto Grosso” form was via Handel on a 1967 set of Decca recordings made by the then world-famous Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, under the leadership of Neville Marriner – such a delight! – and not least due to Handel’s freely “borrowing” from his own music, some of which I already knew. In his Op. 6 set of 12 Concerti Grossi, for instance,  No.9 (HWV 327) and No.11 (HWV 329) both contained delightful reworkings of parts of the composer’s organ concerti, most prominently the famous “Cuckoo and the Nightingale” Concerto (HWV 295).

We did get some Handel in this evening’s presentation, one of those Op.6 Concerti, though, alas, not either of those already referred to. Instead we got the first of the set, No. 1 in G Major (HWV 319), for which the composer again “poached” some of his previous music, an Overture from one of his “Italian” operas, Imeneo, as well as freely imitating passages in one of fellow-composer Domenico Scarlatti’s newly-published “Harpsichord Exercises”. Handel’s work came as the penultimate item on the programme, a kind of “state-of-the-art” example of a Baroque form.

I made a lot of performance notes in the “heat of the listening moment”, which would be too tiresome for anybody to read in full afterwards, so will attempt to summarise my impressions – of the Handel, I thought the opening “A tempo giusto” beautifully sounded, the terracing of dynamics  between the duetting violins and the ensemble exquisite – then, in the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba-like” Allegro which followed, I thought the players amply demonstrated in places that Handel seemed almost to have invented the “Mannheim Crescendo” before the musicians of that august ensemble did! I loved the detailings in the Adagio, such as the elaborate trills which introduced some of the cadences; and relished the different trajectories of the two concluding Allegro sections, the second one particularly exuberant, with plenty of “joicks! – tally-ho!” kind of stuff, thankfully with no horses, hounds or unfortunate fox present!

Of course, I have things the wrong way round, here, as the concert opened with the M-A Charpentier work, the H.545 “Concert pour 4 parties de violes” – two Preludes, each as shapely and flowing as the other, played in the “authentic” manner with little vibrato, but not without warmth and expression, and plenty of dynamic variation. The following Sarabande took our sensibilities to solemn, thoughtful realms at the outset, the Trio section (2 violins and ‘cello) alternating with the ripieno (the full ensemble), with a sweetly-toned piano conclusion. By contrast the Gigues gave off terrific energies, first the “Angloise” in ¾ time, contrasting with the “Francois” in common time, the whole ceremonially rounded by the concluding “Passecaille”, varying the textures between trios of instruments and full band, before concluding the work with a hushed version of the theme – so very lovely!

The works followed one another in more-or-less chronological order, Giuseppe Torelli’s “Concerto musicale a quattro in G Major Op.6, No. 1”, niftily throwing the figurations about in lively fashion at the beginning before calling order with a winsome Adagio sequence. I felt the music-making already had hit its stride in terms of a “naturalness” of utterance with the succeeding Allegro, nothing being “forced” or “squeezed”, the energies always expressive and properly “breathed”.  The first violin’s floridly-expressed decoration of the Adagio seemed to grow naturally from what had come before, transforming into a more energetic but still graceful Allegro movement, and seemingly to gather energy as it proceeded, until a wry, almost mischievous softer postlude ended the work.

While not named as a “Concerto Grosso” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in B-flat for violin, ‘cello and strings RV 547” featured the violin and cello soloists as both collaborators and combatants, with great teamwork from the pair alternating trenchant and exciting exchanges, each player relishing the dynamic variation of his line both when interlocked with the other’s and when solo – so exciting! The slow movement brought out more co-operation than competition, each instrument seeming to “listen” to the other in an affecting way; while the finale seemed like a kind of “anything you can do I can do as well/better” kind of interchange, the violin in particular “digging in” during a central trenchant section, before both instruments surrendered to the sheer elan of the massed tutti ending!

Arcangelo Corelli, generally acknowledged as the “master“ of the concerto grosso form produced his set of 12 works in 1714 some years after they were actually written – in an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of gesture, Handel subsequently brought out his own set of works directly modelled on Corelli’s, effectively “bringing to fruition” the form, with younger composers already beginning to move towards the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante kind of work. As we got from Handel’s Op.6,  we were given the first of Corelli’s set, No. 1 in D Major, a beautifully rich ceremonial Largo opening, the Allegro sections that  followed interspersed with the return of the slower music. The Largo that followed had beautiful “birdsong” elements in the figurations, which suddenly scampered off in “edge-of-the-seat” style, as if dancing on the edge of a precipice, the playing somehow conveying a whiff of dangerous excitement! The solo violin began the opening of the ensuing Adagio with the second violin attractively imitating, echo-wise, the phrases, and the cello steadfastedly counterpointing the progressions. What really delighted our sensibilities was the final Allegro, the two solo violins in thirds excitingly dashing away at the  music’s beginning, relishing the interplay between each other and with the ripieno strings, and turning to the audience as if “bringing us in” to add our breathed “Amens” to the final phrases!

At the conclusion of the already-described Handel work, we were given what promised to be the evening’s most thought-provoking work – a Concerto Grosso commissioned from one of the ensemble’s violinists, Rakuto Kurano. I wasn’t prepared for what seemed like the work’s complete absorption of the historical concerto grosso form but straightaway with its own distinction, the introduction tempestuous and arresting (almost “sturm und drang” in its mood), succeeded by a poised, breath-catching series of quiet gestures, the solo violin adding some stratospheric decoration to the line, then plunging into a fugue, hair-raisingly active and with some terrific dove-tailing gestures to boot! The Fourth section, Grave, sounded gorgeous, steadily-moving chords over which the two solo violins elaborated, bringing the solo cello briefly into the argument at the end. A boisterous Allegro gave the two violins a fine “duelling” sequence, the supporting players either dashing round about or soaring away with their own flights of fancy. The Adagio which followed was  a kind of freeze-frame or slow-interlude in a motion picture, and with the harpsichord, so discreetly balanced to a fault throughout the evening, allowed a brief moment of soloistic glory! The Allegro Vivace that followed – a boisterous, percussive dance, complete with tambourine – primed us up for the brief but exhilarating “The Birds”, antiphonal dialogues pithy but hair-raising! The Finale, energetic and involving, concluded with a trenchant tutti  that “grounded” the sounds in a satisfyingly conclusive way – a gesture of unequivocal and inspiring surety.

A brief encore piece was, I was told, Luigi Boccherini’s “Night music from the streets of Madrid” – if “more Courtenay Place than Thorndon” at that hour, it certainly returned us to our lives, and prompted more of the same enthusiasm and enjoyment. Very great honour and glory to the members of this ensemble, and to their inspirational teachers over the duration, violinist Mark Menzies and ‘cellist Tomas Hurnik, their leadership and encouragement here wrought of magic.


Sleep-walking as Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera returns with a delightful Bellini masterpiece

Opera in a Days Bay Garden

La Sonnambula (Bellini)

Conductor: Mark Carter; producer and director: Rhona Fraser

Cast: Natasha Wilson (Lisa), Morgan-Andrew King (Alessio), Rhona Fraser (Teresa), Elizabeth Mandeno (Amina), Lila Crichton (Notary), Andrew Grenon (Elvino), James Ioelu (Count Rodolfo).
Chorus: Jemma Chester, Emily Yeap, Sinéad Keane, Olivia Stewart, Simon Hernyak, Samuel McKeever, Patrick Shanahan, Alica Carter

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Friday 12 February, 5:30 pm

In common with most of the world, Bellini is no longer a famous composer in New Zealand; his operas are now rarely performed. Of Bellini’s operas only Norma gets much attention. I’m only aware of Canterbury Opera’s production of it in 2002, since its last professional production by a touring company in 1928.

However, in 2016 Rhona Fraser’s Opera in a Days Bay Garden was responsible for a somewhat rarer Bellini opera – the story that Shakespeare had used in Romeo and JulietI Capuleti e i Montecchi; which was staged by Auckland Studio Opera in 2018.

After two productions in 2017 – Handel’s Theodora and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – Rhona and her husband have been away for two years, in Germany. They returned last year and Rhona seems determined to resume the professional production of interesting operas. Her enterprise has been very missed.

Hers is just one of the small opera groups around the country which, very unevenly, offer opportunities for the public to discover opera and for advanced, mainly young singers, to gain first-class experience. None of these small companies, some, like Days Bay, fully professional, has attracted financial or other significant help from central or local government and few have lasted more than a couple of years.

If anything, there is less amateur or small-scale professional opera in New Zealand than there was 20 years ago, when, for example, both the Victoria University School of Music and the then Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium produced an opera every year; now Victoria alone produces an opera every other year.

La sonnambula’s history 
Now, Days Bay Opera has brought one of Bellini’s most popular operas, La sonnambula, back to life, though this time, Auckland Opera Studio has been first with it, in 2011, The last previous production was in 1881. More interesting still is the fact that Sonnambula was just the second opera, after Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, to be performed in New Zealand: in 1862. Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand (Opera’s farthest Frontier) records these and a couple of now forgotten English operas in the amateurish English Opera Troupe’s historic productions in the make-shift Royal Princess Theatre in Dunedin.

And the book records that in 1863 the company brought Sonnambula to Wellington: absolutely the first opera in Wellington.

Fine, warm weather offered a delightful environment for the first (and the other two) performances on the lawn below the house and narrow terraces on which the audience sat, The tree-filled garden surrounded by beech forest create what might be the most unique opera setting in the world.

The opera’s staging, created by Rhona Fraser, was contemporary, with a limited number of seats and other props, and with costumes that spoke more of the attitudes and situations of the characters than of their period. The orchestra comprised thirteen players, led by Anne Loeser and conducted by Mark Carter, was somewhat behind and to the left of the audienec; inevitably, it was  bit remote for some of the audience.

During the brief prelude an ill-tempered Lisa (Natasha Wilson) is tidying and cleaning impatiently, though her vivid singing and acting showed a more charming character. But that was not in relation to any member of the chorus; especially, she flaunted contempt for the heedless Alessio, rich-voiced baritone Morgan-Andrew King, who gained attention at the recent Whanganui Opera School. She rejects his love: any qualms about his beard or rude appearance must be set aside in our age of unorthodoxy.

The coming marriage between Amina and Elvino is heralded by the arrival of the Notary (the impressive Samoan bass Lila Crichton).

The opera really took off with the arrival of Amina (Elizabeth Mandeno), and her first big aria, “Come per me sereno” and the cabaletta “Sovra il sen la man” rejoicing in her expected marriage to Elvino. His voice, with his moving greeting “Perdona, o mia diletta”, picking up later with “Prendi: a’nel ti dono”, was agreeable though his demeanour might have fallen short of his propertied standing; however, he portrayed a credibly decent chap. Though one might wonder, as the story evolves, how someone so improbably sensitive could have gained his reputation in the village.

Rodolfo, the Count (James Ioelu), arrives, presenting an imposing demeanour and vocal confidence, all the signs of small-time nobility which he shows through fundamental decency.

The ensemble of villagers has its significant role throughout. In an interesting later episode the villagers in an effective evocation tell Rodolfo of the phantom that locals see at midnight, “Udite, a fosca cielo”,

Elvino and misplaced jealousy
Scene I of Act I ends with Elvino, prompted by the Count making flattering gestures to Amina, confessing to Amina his uncontrollable jealousy, his “Son geloso del zefiro errante” was a curious revelation.

Even though Amina convinces Elvino that his jealousy is misplaced and peace reigns, in scene ii she sleep-walks into Rodolfo’s room at Lisa’s inn (here an AirBNB), and there’s a tentative attraction between them. Amina’s entry, sleep-walking, changes everything; she sees Rodolfo as Elvino and throws herself at him but he gets out before Elvino and the villagers arrive. However, there is Amina, now in Rodolfo’s bed, and no sleep-walking excuse (they’ve never heard of somnambulism) persuades any of the villagers that things are different from what they seem.

It was a splendid scene. Even if suspended at a very high level of improbability and absurdity, it was both dramatic and funny. Throughout, Amina’s foster-mother Teresa (Rhona Fraser), exhibiting calm sanity and in excellent voice in all her several episodes, remains faithful to her, even, one supposes, if Amina were guilty.

At the beginning of the second scene of Act II, Natasha Wilson, as Lisa, plays a vividly stylish part, now seeing herself as the likely winner, able to capture Elvino for herself, and her short, tight white dress illuminated her expectations; she adorns it with a white veil.

The suspense, awaiting Rodolfo’s explanation to the villagers and specifically to Elvino about the nature of somnambulism is protracted. It’s clinched by Amina’s walking along a riskless board between rows of audience (instead of on a fragile plank above the mill-wheels on the river).   The last scene eventually brings an understanding of “sleep-walking” and Amina’s singing at the end is plaintive and moving.

Though sung in Italian, the notes in the programme were sufficient for those new to the work to understand – in any case, the Italian from all singers was admirably clear. Accepting the limitations fundamental to the out-doors setting and various sound and production constraints, the entire performance was admirable and completely enjoyable. Rhona Fraser is warmly welcome back in New Zealand.

If you missed this one, don’t hesitate to book early for the next.

For the record, these are the operas Days Bay has produced so far:

2010   The Marriage of Figaro
2010   The Journey to Rheims  (Rossini)
2012   Alcina (Handel)
2012   Maria Stuarda  (Donizetti)
2013   Cosi fan tutte
2013   L’oca del Cairo (Mozart)
2014   Der Rosenkavalier
2015   Calisto (Cavalli)
2016   Agrippina (Handel)
2016   I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
2017   Theodora (Handel)
2017   Eugene Onegin
2021   La sonnambula

A new film commemorates the 1941 Babiy Yar Massacre of Ukraine Jews by the Nazis

Featuring excerpts from “Requiem – The Holocaust” by Israeli composer Boris Pigovat, a work for orchestra and viola soloist.

Narrator – Valentyna Bugrak
Composer – Boris Pigovat
Viola soloist – Xi Liu
Conductor – Martin Riseley
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Designer and Producer – Donald Maurice
Director – Bill McCarthy
Assistant Producer and translator – Xi Liu
Photographer – Dwight Pounds
Sound Engineer  – Graham Kennedy

Project funded by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

A 2008 concert in Wellington given by the then Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei featured the very first performance in New Zealand of Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s “Requiem”, with violist Donald Maurice as the soloist.  This work, completed in 1995, commemorated the horrific massacre by the Nazis of thousands of Jewish citizens of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv during 1941. Pigovat’s grandparents and an aunt were among those murdered by the occupying Nazi forces in what has come to be known as “the Babiy Yar massacre”.

The “Requiem” was originally intended to be premiered in Israel, but (not inappropriately) the venue was changed by dint of circumstances to Kyiv itself, an event notable for the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in the city and the Goethe Institute, the work finally being premiered in 2001. Almost eight years later came the first New Zealand performance mentioned above (attended by the composer, and recorded by Atoll Records), which was followed by an invitation to the solo violist, Donald Maurice, to take part in the work’s first performance in Germany later in the year.  (The Middle C review of the Atoll recording can be read here:

All of this is by way of preamble to the 2020 making of a film, one which designer/producer Donald Maurice calls a “miracle”, considering it was all put together during a pandemic! The name “Lacrimosa Dies Illa” (Latin for “Full of tears will be that day”) is taken from the Dies Irae {“Day of Wrath”) sequence of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, words which have previously inspired various composers who have undertaken to compose a Requiem. The production boldly juxtaposes past and present images of the actual location with narrations of actual events, a commentary by the composer on the work’s specific content and general structure, and filmed excerpts from a performance of the work in the Adam Concert Room at the University’s School of Music.

The film opens with scenes from the place close to the ravine where the atrocities took place, now an idyllic park-like memorial, with long avenues of trees and various commemorative monuments and statues, one in particular dedicated to the children who lost their lives there. The latter is singled out in the presentation by a sudden orchestral cry of pain and lament during the introductory music of the opening “Requiem Aeternam” movement accompaniment. After this, Ukrainian violist Valentyna Bugrak, a member of the Kyiv Kamerata Ensemble orchestra, begins to narrate an outline of the horrific story of the massacres. Filmed on location at the park by Roman Strakhov, Bugrak appears at various times during the film to recount the continued “saga of atrocity” which took place at that location. Somehow, for me, her youthful presence and beauty, though separated by more years than would have allowed her to be directly associated with the events, seems to speak directly for the children whose lives were not allowed the chance to blossom, but instead caught up and ended by these brutal actions of the Nazis towards people they deemed expendable. Her commentary also outlines the tactics employed by the Nazis to trick the Jewish population into thinking that people were to be relocated to their historic homeland, and thus securing their compliance up to the point where it was too late for them to escape.

Composer Boris Pigovat, filmed at Rosh Ha’Ayin in Israel by Gyuqin Cao, is depicted explaining and  demonstrating on a piano the Requiem’s leading motifs, how and why they make their appearance and where they occur in the course of the music. Sitting with him is the violist we see performing much of the work, Xi Liu – I would have liked her interaction with the composer to have been rather less passive – there’s no chance for her to articulate any of her feelings about any parts of the work and its particular challenges, except via her superb playing with the NZSM Orchestra conducted by Martin Riseley. But to be fair, the film’s duration, five minutes over the hour, doesn’t waste a second in regard to what it does contain, a powerful and gripping amalgam of information, context and creative insight regarding content that’s at once fascinating and deeply tragic.

Some may find Pigovat’s explanations and analyses of his material too much of a good thing – but he does have the gift of describing his raw musical material and its relevance to the whole in emotive-based nontechnical language, which enables one to connect with a set of raw kind of impulses whose effects can be characterised in words – he readily points out his influences from non-Jewish sources, such as the Christian Requiem and its use of Latin as a language of ritual in both structure and content, but is able to set it in a kind of context of connection with faith and humanity in general, even a unifying force for those prepared to make the journey. The film is  good at demonstrating how the composer’s “raw” material is employed in the finished product, by playing orchestral rehearsal excerpts featuring the same motifs and their interaction. Pigovat is particularly eloquent when  explaining the significance of his use of the Latin title for the second movement “Dies Irae”, and its interaction with the Jewish prayer “Shema Israel”, paying special attention in the music to the idea of the horror being a kind of mechanism, a “murder machine” as well as a “devilish dance”. The orchestral performance which follows uses various concentration camp images to underline the sense of persecution and mechanised and systematic elimination of a significant body of people, the playing by the NZSM musicians under Martin Riseley’s direction building up and into a ferocious orchestrally-wrought maelstrom, followed by an equally macabre “dance of death”, concluding with the composer’s idea of a beating heart slowly dying, signifying life ebbing from those people caught up in the nightmare.

In view of the film’s title I expected much would be made of the similarly-named third movement of the Requiem – and so it proves, with Pigovat indicating his awareness of the usual response by composers to the “Lacrimosa” (weeping) text, but wanting something different in the wake of the Dies Irae movement, expressions of anger and strangulated pain, leading to a kind of madness whose intensity seems to take the human spirit to a state of oblivion in which everything is “burnt out”, the music primordial and impulse-driven – an amazing solo viola passage in which these things are unleashed is given in full, the music at once insensible and searingly eloquent in Xi Liu’s hands. Pigovat expresses the idea given to him by Prokofiev in his opera Semyon Kotko, a sequence in which a man is executed and his fiancee will not believe he is dead –  and like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet she loses her mind with grief, the music strange and “lost”, until an “explosion” of realisation finally brings tears. Pigovat was inspired at this point by Mozart’s Lacrimosa in his “Requiem”, the music a series of finely-wrought impulses of grief ebbing and flowing between silences……

The composer thought the concluding “Lux Aeterna” would be the lightest and most serene part of the work, but felt that  it needed a “fresh” approach, with themes that had not been heard before. We hear the themes sketched out for us, and then played by the soloist and orchestra, the music calling for a renewal of faith and hope – a beautiful passage for solo flute which the film highlights “speaks” for the character of this section of the music, and the Martinu-like ostinati for various instruments takes the music to the coda, a sequence which Pigovat considers connected with the souls of the dead, the viola interacting with sombre brass and percussion, the tones allowed to resonate into silence.

Valentyna Bugrak returns at the film’s end to tell us of how much was remembered and retold by the survivors of this tragic series of events, more so that we might appreciate and understand the full extent of the atrocity and be reminded that this must never be allowed to happen again.  The film’s gathering together of history, commentary and deeply-felt creative response concerning the horrific events at Babiy Yar inevitably makes for, in places uncomfortably heart-rending viewing and listening, but it serves to further remind us of our own human capacities for inhuman behaviour which, as more recent events have disturbingly demonstrated, can take unexpected shape and form in so many ways.

A website devoted to the  film will be launched shortly, one containing the documentation through which people’s work on all aspects of the production can be fully recognised and acknowledged. As this is the 80th anniversary year of the massacre, a number of countries have already indicated their interest in screening this film at this time.  Meanwhile, a trailer for the film can be viewed at the following link: –

The third group, the Glorious Mysteries, from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas from Loeser, Young and Mews

Biber’s Rosary Sonatas: The Glorious Mysteries  

Anne Loeser (baroque violin), Jane Young  (baroque cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord/organ)

The third and final part of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Rosary Sonatas
The Glorious Mysteries and the concluding Passacaglia: ‘The Guardian Angel’

St Teresa’s Catholic Church, 301 Karori Road, Karori

Friday 5 February 6pm

Middle C missed the first two parts of Biber’s famous Rosary Sonatas late last year. These are instrumental compositions inspired by the sense of each of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary.  So it was rewarding to hear the third group of ‘sonatas’, which comprises sonatas 11 to 15, plus the famous, stand-alone Passacaglia; and to be told that it was hoped to perform the entire series again later this year.

Not a great deal is known about Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. We don’t even know when they were written, although it is guessed at somewhere around 1680. But we do know from  a letter of dedication that they were written for Biber’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) composed them for violin and continuo (baroque cello and harpsichord), which is how they were played on Friday. Other instrumental arrangements have been created, as will be evident by looking at the Internet. Biber lived about two generations before Bach, rather a contemporary of Corelli, Buxtehude, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, Lully, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Bononcini, Stradella….

Much of the following is drawn from Wikipedia and the notes Gregory Hill wrote to read at this and the first two concerts in 2020.

The manuscript of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas was discovered in the Bavarian State Library in about 1890, and first published in 1905.  They had never been published or disseminated and in the previous 200 years, nobody had heard them, or heard of them. Once rediscovered, the Mystery Sonatas became Biber’s best known composition.

The title page is missing from the manuscript, so we don’t know what Biber called them. But we know from Biber’s dedication letter to the Archbishop of Salzburg that they were written to reflect the 15 Sacred Mysteries in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

While the individual mysteries are not named either, there is a blank space at the top of each sonata in which a copperplate engraving is printed, representing each of the mysteries of the Rosary, thus associating each sonata with that mystery. When the sonatas were first discovered, they were in fact referred to as The Copperplate Engraving Sonatas.

The work is prized for its virtuosic style, scordatura tunings and its programmatic structure.

Scordatura tuning
One of the most singular aspects of the music is the way the violin is tuned, differently for each sonata, known as ‘Scordatura’, a term familiar, I imagine, to most string players: it involves modifying the tone of the violin by changing the pitch of certain strings. For example, No 13 is tuned, upwards: A E C# E and No 15: G C G D (compared with the normal, in fifths, G D A E).

Biber uses scordatura primarily to manipulate the violin’s tone colour, while the creation of otherwise impossible chords and textures are a secondary opportunity.

In addition, the eleventh sonata, the first of the Glorious Mystery group, requires the violinist to cross the middle strings at both the bridge and the nut to allow octave tunings – two Gs and two Ds – between the adjacent pairs of outer strings. There was a photo on a screen illustrating how that looked.

Every sonata required a different scordatura tuning. So that no long pauses for re-tuing were needed, Anne Loeser used four violins: two, her own, the others lent by Shelley Wilkinson and Gregory Squire. Gregory Hill thanked Gregory Squire for the job “of keeping all those violins in perfect mistune”; he went back and forth between the sonatas with the appropriately tuned violin.

Middle C seems to have had rather limited experience of Biber. There have been reviews of performances of certain of the Rosary Sonatas; in addition, in 2014, the ‘Battle’ scene from his Battalia, a singular portrayal of aspects of war (only some 30 years after the end of the devastating Thirty Years War, an aspect of European history that used to be ignored when the British Empire was almost the sole history subject; I fear that things may not be much better now with New Zealand’s emphasis on the, shall-we-say, parochial).

This concert: The Glorious Mysteries
The recital was in the Catholic church of Saint Teresa, a large, acoustically splendid space that sometimes had me looking for signs of a sound system, so warm and rich were the performances.

The Glorious Mysteries consists of:
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumprion of Mary into Heaven
The Coronation of Mary in Heaven
the Passacaglia – The Guardian Angel which is scored for violin alone.

The music was introduced by Gregory Hill (recently retired principal horn in the NZSO) who began by outlining the character of the entire series of 15 Rosary Sonatas, plus the final Passacaglia. The series is divided into three groups of ‘mysteries’, five in each. Middle C missed the first two series in late 2020: The Joyful Mysteries and The Sorrowful Mysteries. This concert completed the series with the third and final part: The Glorious Mysteries (sonatas 11 to 15) plus the concluding Passacaglia The Guardian Angel, not strictly one of the Rosary Sonatas.

The playing of the Resurrection sonata arrested the audience by emerging from behind, in the organ gallery: Douglas Mews’ sustained organ pedal note that was punctuated by sporadic cello sounds and a simple repetitive phrase by the violin. The second phase (is ‘movement’ the right word? – it’s named Surrexit Christus hodie – ‘Christ in born today’, after the old Latin hymn) soon emerged as a calming melody in triplets against balanced, harmonising passages on the organ. It’s a long movement that gains a hypnotic feeling before long in spite of the occasional playing of the hymn melody. The last movement became contemplative.

The players descended to the floor of the church to explore – incongruously – the character of No 12, the Ascension, about Christ’s rise to Heaven after 40 days. The rhythmic character of the opening part (described as a ‘martial intrada’) expressed a cheerful enough spirit. The following movement, entitled ‘Aria tubicinum’, or ‘trumpet tune’ which the players succeeded in investing with a certain spiritual feeling from the calm delight of being in heaven. Now that the players were closer to us, their wonderful technical command and animated musical feeling was evident, and the major contributions by Jane Young’s baroque cello and Mews’s harpsichord, often equal in importance to the violin, as well as in expression and colour.

Though it would not have been obvious to the audience, the nature of the scordatura for the Ascension was, as remarked by Gregory Hill, tuned to the simple C major chord (C E G C) with the G string tuned up a fourth to C which makes it ‘painfully tight’ for the fingers.

The third of the Glorious Mysteries, No XIII, the Pentecost, begins with a movement simply entitled ‘Sonata’, mainly in ¾ time; then short episodes, Gavotta and a Gigue with much excitable cross-string playing. It ended with a contemplative Sarabanda, and underlying drone passages, in ‘wonderment of the holy spirit’, in the words of the commentary.

The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the fourth Mystery, Sonata 14.  After a few flighty bars a Grave, then an Adagio episode followed, creating a peaceful scene; then an Aria which sounded more like a dance, in triple time, becoming more and more excitable and delightful. There seemed to be an almost Spanish flavour in the music. Though I hardly noticed it, the very danceable Aria movement moved subtly into a very similar Gigue. It was probably the gayest sonata in the group of ‘Glorious Mysteries’, though it ended enigmatically as the violin, which represented Mary, disappeared, leaving the last bars to cello and harpsichord.

The last of the actual ‘Glorious Mysteries’, No XV, is The Coronation of Mary in Heaven. A distinct difference was marked by the players’ return to the organ gallery, with the keyboard part again taken by the organ. It started with considerable solemnity, with an undefined ‘Sonata’. Though it’s in C major, there’s a general sense of peace, of acceptance in the music. Another neutral word, Aria, describes the next section with its three variations. It was replete with warmth, tumbling triplet semi-quavers and flashes of demi-semi-quavers. The playing was technically engrossing and emotionally at peace. It ended in the same general mood, though the concluding Sarabande, with endless presto semi-quavers in gay triple time.

Outside the strict series of the ‘Glorious Mystery’ sonatas, is the Passacaglia, ‘The Guardian Angel’, where Anne Loeser’s violin is left alone. Apart from the score marking it as a ‘Passacaglia’ no descriptive title is shown, apart from occasional tempo indications: Adagio, Allegro. The name comes from the copper-plate engraving at the beginning of the manuscript, as you’ll see from the website: There are no distinct movements or episodes, so the rhythm is constant through its roughly eight minutes – about the same as each of the five Glorious Mystery sonatas themselves. Its commanding, hypnotic attention was simply the result of the spiritual and emotional delivery of Loeser’s playing.

It did not eclipse the polished, intelligent and emotion-led playing of all three musicians in the Glorious Mysteries themselves; and the quite numerous audience applauded them with enthusiasm.