Stylish, varied and compelling – Inspirare’s tribute to Great Britain’s music

Great Britain: Five centuries of British music


Mark Stamper, Artistic Director

Heather Easting, organ and piano

St Andrew’s on the Terrace,

Saturday, 29 May 2021

This concert was billed as ‘five centuries of British music’, but in truth it was two and a half centuries plus Tallis, or even one and a half centuries plus Handel and Tallis. Nonetheless, it was a stylish concert.

Inspirare is a small choir (18 voices) of mostly soloists. Founded by Mark Stamper five years ago, it gave its first concert on 4 September 2016. Known for its polish, the choir did not disappoint.

The concert began with a work for organ, Herbert Howells’ Rhapsody No 1 in D flat major, played with consummate style by Heather Easting. This showed off the recently refurbished organ nicely, and set the style for the programme to follow.

As was appropriate for a concert featuring so much organ music, the choir sang from the gallery, and the audience was arranged on the usual seating in the body of the church, but facing backwards. This arrangement worked beautifully, ensuring that there were no awkward timing delays between choir and organ. The only downside was that some of the singers were not visible, and the usual rapport between choir and audience was missing. But the sonic advantages made up for that. Placing the choir high in the church, close to the ceiling, meant that the sound was focused and clean, exactly as the music required, rather than becoming muddied between the front of the church and the back wall.

Britten’s Jubilate Deo – what an ohrwurm! – demonstrated a very nice balance between organ and choir, and showed off the fresh, young sound of the choir. They sounded like much Viva Voce in the early years: half the size, but with the same freshness and flexibility, precise tuning, and clear diction.

Thomas Tallis’s slender four-part motet, If Ye Love Me, showed a lovely sustained legato, clean and crisp at the ends of phrases. If it had any fault it was a lack of emotion. The overall effect was beautiful but not fervent, straightforwardly sung as though it was simply a piece of music rather than a musical prayer.

The Tallis was followed by Handel’s monumental Let thy Hand be Strengthened. Like a Ferrari on the open road, the choir responded to Mark Stamper with a full-throated roar, sounding like three times the number of voices. They gave a full Handelian sound, yet were precise in the runs; never florid, always stylish, with superb organ support (standing in for the whole orchestra). Heather Easting’s registrations were delicious, especially in ‘Let Justice and Judgement’, where the pedal line must not overpower the delicate upper register. The altos and basses came in with a smooth legato, and the silvery soprano entry demonstrated perfect balance.

If the concert had finished at that point, I would have gone home satisfied, but the best was still to come. Britten’s Festival Te Deum followed. The work was written in 1944 for the centenary of St Mark’s Church, Swindon, and first performed in 1945. There was a finely graduated crescendo held against the full organ, and the subito piano entry was magical. The tenors sounded young and fresh. The athletic middle section is fast, with a wide tessitura, followed by some jolly vehement singing. The treble solo part was taken by Simon Hernyak, one of the altos. The highest notes were just a fraction too high for her, but Stamper’s choice of an alto soloist was exactly right, because the Inspirare sopranos have a fuller sound than the English cathedral treble.

Staying cheerful, Parry’s I was Glad succeeded Britten. It was written for a coronation and has a big organ introduction. The choir that entered sounded more like Westminster Abbey than a chamber choir. Majestic singing. At times I wondered whether the choir could hold its own against the organ, but they did, with some glorious soprano top notes. Lovely vocal technique throughout.

And then a change of pace. Heather Easting came downstairs to play the piano for the setting of In Flanders Fields by Welsh composer Paul Mealor. This was the highlight of the concert for me. A perfect marriage of music and text, written with directness and simplicity. Inspirare did a splendid job, from the first male entry, tenors joined by the basses singing lightly in the upper part of the voice, and then a ravishing bell-like sound from the sopranos. Wikipedia says that Mealor is ‘considered one of the world’s most performed living composers’, and I understand why. More Mealor, please!

After the Mealor, some Stanford. And I Saw another Angel featured tenor James Asquith as soloist, with a lovely light Evangelist sound, and powerful singing by the women in particular.

This was succeeded by an organ piece by Vaughan Williams, Rhosymedre, placed here to give the choir a short breather, since there was no interval. And straight on into a melodious work by the contemporary Scottish composer James Macmillan, A New Song. There were pretty fluttering and trilling figures in the organ part, with a thicker harmonic texture once the choir entered, with sopranos dominant. The sopranos sang trills against a sustained bass pedal line; then the tenors imitated the effect against the organ’s pedal notes. The structure is strophic, but the changes of texture made it thrilling. The lower soprano sound, once more with that Viva Voce freshness, was beautiful. Like the Mealor, this is a work that deserves to be performed widely.

David Bednall is a prolific young contemporary Brit who has been educated in the English Cathedral tradition and has written many works for church choirs. His 8-part Easter Alleluia featured bass soloist Joe Haddow, who made a gorgeous sound. Bednall cites his love of ‘late twentieth century music’ as an influence on his composition, but though the tonality in this work was complex, the effect was riveting, with lively compound rhythms and some punishingly high soprano notes.

Jonathan Willcocks’ Lacrymosa set a movement from the Requiem Mass text (‘Lacrimosa dies illa’) and did it full justice, with Messiaen-like tonality, lovely text-painting, and a beautiful Pie Jesu for tenors and sopranos. Inspirare did the work full justice.

The last work was by the Welsh Anglican composer Willian Mathias (who taught Paul Mealor), Let the People Praise Thee (Op. 87). Written for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, it started with fanfares from organ and choir and built to a huge crescendo.

And that was it. A most stylish concert of interesting works, well chosen, and presented with exquisite attention to detail. Inspirare’s next concert will be on 4 September in St Teresa’s Church, Karori. Put it in your diary now.


Monique Lapins and Jian Liu give consummate performances of Bartok and Debussy at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Monique Lapins, violin, and Jian Liu, piano

CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Violin Sonata in G minor L148
BÉLA BARTÓK – 6 Romanian Folk Dances
BÉLA BARTÓK – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Sz 75

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

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

How privileged we are in Wellington to be able to go to a lunch time concert on a beautiful Wednesday and hear such consummate artists as Monique Lapins and Jian Liu of the NZ School of Music. They presented a challenging programme of Debussy and Bartók. The two violin sonatas were written within a few years of each other, Debussy’s in 1917 in the middle of the war, Bartók’s in the aftermath of the war and in the shadow of the Hungarian Commune. Both were groundbreaking works.

Debussy was very ill, dying of cancer when he wrote his Violin Sonata. It was his last composition, planned as one of six instrumental sonatas, of which he completed only three, his Cello Sonata, his Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp and this Sonata for Violin. It is in classic sonata form in three movements, but there the comparison with the great sonatas of Beethoven or Brahms ends. It is a short work, a third of the length of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, but though it is short, it is concise with a wealth of material. The first movement opens with chords on the piano which are then deconstructed, fragmented. The beautiful haunting melody, played on the violin has an oriental flavour with a tinge of sadness The second movement starts with a violin solo which breaks into a jocular passage that alternates with dark melancholy and then sarcasm as if saying ‘don’t take me too seriously’. The opening of the final movement starts with a nostalgic melody, then becomes triumphal with high spirits and playful accompaniment. The work lasts less than a quarter hour, yet it is full of contrasts, wit, charm, and transparent filigree passages, but also a sense of loss. It is a fragile piece that requires sensitive reading and Monique Lapins and Jian Liu did justice to this most beautifully.

Bartók’s Six Romanian Dances were an appropriate contrast to the Debussy Sonata. These are boisterous, folksy, a product of Bartók’s travels through the Balkans, collecting folk music with his fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály They are immediately approachable. They also present technical challenges, difficult double stops, harmonics, unrelenting strong rhythms. They also served as a bridge to Bartók’s musical world, his search for a musical language that broke away from the musical language that he was reared on, the language of Brahms and other great German composers. I couldn’t help thinking Monique Lapins and Jian Liu’s playing here perhaps a little TOO “masterly”, too controlled, in places needing more sense of the dances’ gay abandonment.

Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1, by contrast, is a difficult work, both technically and musically. Unlike the Debussy Sonata, which is brief, concise and at times whimsical, the Bartók Sonata is a long, passionate, disturbing piece. The first movement opens with rich chords on the piano, then the violin enters with a plaintive if discordant melody. The piano and violin complement each other with contrasting voices, but they don’t echo each other or share melodic or rhythmic themes. The piano captures the sound of the cimbalom, the violin the crying human voice. The strained harmonies highlight the tension between the two instruments. The second movement opens with a beautiful if discordant gentle violin solo that Monique Lapins played as beautifully as you are ever likely to hear, before the piano took over with sombre pensive chords. Jian Liu produced a rich palette of sounds on the piano, percussive when it was required, gentle, lyrical with a warm tone when that was appropriate. The mood of the movement was one of longing, heart rending sadness, played by the violin and supported by harp-like chords on the piano. The final movement opened with harsh percussive chords on the piano and this percussive beat continued to appear right through the piece, while the violin played with manic energy. Hungarian rhythms intruded in the midst of the seeming mayhem. Then the piece broke down into grotesque dance rhythms interrupted by brief lyrical episodes on the violin. The work ended with passionate energy. This energy and passion carried the audience with it, reflected by the wild applause that followed, an applause seldom heard at the end of a lunch hour recital.

This sonata is a challenge for violinist and pianist alike. It is a difficult monumental work which Monique Lapins and Jian Liu played with rare zest.

It was a memorable recital. The Bartók Sonata is rarely heard, perhaps because of its exceptional difficulties. Those who were at the concert were fortunate have had the opportunity to hear it in such an exceptionally fine performance.



Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir adventurous in Bartok, irresistible in Orff

Orchestra Wellington presents:

BARTOK – Cantata Profana
ORFF – Carmina Burana

Amelia Berry (soprano), Amitai Pati (tenor), Christian Thurston (baritone)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Wellington Young Voices (Mark Stamper, director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd May, 2021

Encountering a work in concert every now and then that has somehow “slipped through the net” of my musical experience sometimes results in a bit of a “juggle” of contrasting feelings, and especially when one is a reviewer – I get enormous pleasure in the discovery of something new, but also feel a degree of guilt at not having come across the “something” earlier, and especially if it’s a work by a well-known composer! Bartok’s “Cantata Profana” fell into this category – a work that was new to me, and one which needed some familiarising on my part via recordings before I felt better prepared for the “Virtuoso Voices” concert, so as to get at least some of it already playing in my head.

I confess I didn’t really know what to expect, though having seen and heard Bartok’s opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” I was familiar with something of the composer’s vocal writing style, one which reflected his preoccupation with Hungarian and Roumanian folk-tunes and their idioms, a process akin to what Musorgsky had attempted to do a few years earlier in Russia, by reproducing idioms and accents of native speech in his music in search of something “Russian”. Bartok had collected the two poems in the form of Roumanian colinde or carols, on which he based his cantata’s story, in 1914, at first assigning the Roumanian texts to a Hungarian poet for translation, but eventually using his own Hungarian translation. He then entrusted a German translation to Bence Szabolcsi, a Hungarian musicologist, and an English translation to the polygot Michel-Dmitri Calvocoressi (whose translation, ironically, was used at the work’s premiere performance in London, in 1934, the first printed edition of the score using the German and English texts!). Fascinating!

As I’d heard only Hungarian texts in the recordings I’d listened to, I couldn’t help registering the difference made at the concert itself by the relative “softness” (almost to the point of “blandness” in places) of the English works, which presented for myself and people who sat nearby to me at the concert the performance’s only drawback – the unintelligibility of most of what was being sung. For all the Michael Fowler Centre’s qualities as a musical venue it tends to blunt and blur word-detail – vowel sounds and tonal colour do well, as here, but consonants and sharper detail get lost in the spaces without extra emphasis given their articulation – even when words are in English! Had we not had the general outlines of the cantata’s story written in the programme notes we would have been completely lost! – I wondered whether the cantata’s English text might have been somehow projected for all to see?

A good thing it was that the performance was so very atmospheric in an overall sense, its sequences so convincingly characterised, with the musicians conveying to us the different moods of the action and the feelings of the characters, albeit in a somewhat generalised way. From the beginning the story’s mystery and magic was conjured up by the dark sounds, the swirling mists and eerie lines preparing us for the strangeness of the events about to unfold, singers and players held in firm dynamic control by Marc Taddei’s direction, the lines replete with the composer’s characteristic rhythms and folkish figurations, then bursting into action as the hunt was portrayed by the fugal writing, with the story’s “nine sons, splendid offspring” whom their father had brought up and trained “for the savage mountains, with hunting skills”. As the sons pursued their quarry, the music underwent a wondrous change – “….they found “a graceful bridge showing magic deertracks” –  in crossing the bridge, the sons were changed by this same magic into stags – “the splendid hunters thus became the hunted”.

When the father, searching for his lost sons, found the stags, he raised his rifle to shoot one of them, the music agitating as the choir cried out repeated warnings, prompting the stag to speak with the voice of the son to his father, cautioning him not to shoot – such splendid singing, here, from tenor Amitai Pati, fully equal to the demands of the writing, with the ringing, heroic tones required from the character. The choir introduced the bass soloist Christian Thurston’s softer-grained voice as the father, pleading for his sons to return home to their mother, to “lanterns lit”, and to “goblets of wine” – but the son replied that they could never return home to these things, as their antlers “are wider than your doorway” and that now “they can drink their fill only from clean mountain streams”.

The text then reverted to the story’s beginning for the choir to tell the narrative once again, the voices producing some beautifully-modulated phrases, conveying such longing, and (as on every occasion I listened to a recording) bringing tears to the eyes of this listener as the fate of both the nine stags and their bereft parents were so very movingly reiterated. Though Bartok described this music as embodying “his most profound credo”, he left others to wonder at what he might have meant to convey through the story……he was evidently very much at home with nature, spending a good deal of his time out of doors, avowing nature’s freedoms as opposed to the different kinds of cruelties of civilisation – in this respect the story was a kind of “cautionary tale”, the sons becoming the hapless victims rather than the perpetrators of crimes against living things, and against nature in general, and the father reaping the pitiless price of his own exploitative attitude towards creatures in the wild.

Despite the difficulties concerning the text, the overall impression conveyed by the performance to this listener gave the experience of hearing the work a lasting value beyond words. And it was a perfect foil for what followed in the concert’s second half – nothing less than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the composer’s marvellously uninhibited settings of a hedonistic paean to life’s pleasures and sorrows in the form of a collection of anonymous medieval verses which have survived the ravages of time and circumstance in order to delight present-day sensibilities and (in places) console vissicitudes alike!

Having reviewed an Orpheus performance of this work as recently as September 2019 –

I’m finding it hard to escape the feeling (from memory) that there could be a lot of repetition in my comments regarding the singing, though as the previous performance involved the Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble rather than the full orchestra, there will be “tweaks” of different emphasis here and there. One detail I had forgotten until I accessed the earlier review was that a SCREEN was used on that occasion to “project” the English translations of the words during the Orff! – I rest my case regarding the Bartok (see paragraph 3 above), this time round!

Another repetitive refrain from yours truly concerns the tempo taken by Marc Taddei for the opening “O Fortuna” on this occasion, something about which I find myself seemingly pushing a fairly lonely critical furrow in opinionating that most conductors take the sequence excessively quickly, given the out-and-out “lamenting” nature of the text! – however, the sheer energy of Taddei’s and the orchestra’s performance on this occasion was admittedly breath-catching, and impressive in its way! Still, the real enjoyment of the performance for me began with “Primo vere” (In Springtime), the bright, piping percussion and silvery winds framing the singing so fetchingly, and the ambience wonderfully spacious in the wake of the work’s almost “blitzkrieg” opening! I liked, too, Christian Thurston’s world-weary baritone solo “Omnia Sol temperat “, the character perhaps seeming a little tired of excessive drinking and whoring, and looking to the spring for renewal!

After the bell had resoundingly lingered at the conclusion of “Ecce gratum”, great percussive crashes heralded the “Dance”, played with a rhythmic verve that almost lifted us out of our seats with the energy of it all. Following the imposing beginning to “Floret Silva” the charm of the subsequent exchanges sounded well-nigh irresistible, as was the women’s plaintive singing in the “Shopkeeper, give me the colour” plea for an “aid” with which to capture a younger lover. The “Slow Dance” wove its spell of sensuous languidity, complete with nostalgically-sounding brass, which left us, like the hapless Faust, about to exclaim “How fair this spot” and looking to remain in damnation! – however the strumming strings woke us from the dream (the men’s voices, too, were a bit slow on the uptake at first with their “Swaz hie gat umbe” at the start of the Round Dance!) But what balm for the senses were the women’s voices in the interlude, before the strings took up the strumming once again! And what brilliant brass playing with which to conclude the sequence, as befitted the “surprise appearance” of the Queen of England, which concluded the first part!

Christian Thurston’s soft-grained voice did its best with “Estuans interius”, and “Ego sum abbas”, both sections calling for fiercer declamations, though he did better with the Abbot of Clucany’s piteous cries of “Wafna!”, accompanied by earth-shattering percussion outbursts! In between came the heart-rending “Song of the Roasted Swan”, with tenor Amitai Pati reappearing, and straightaway “nailing” the unfortunate bird’s anguish, though I thought the men’s voices a tad reticent in their ”Miser, miser!” rejoiners at the end of each verse.  Fortunately they moved their throttle up several notches for the incredibly vigorous “In taberna quando sumus” – the drinking song to end all drinking songs! Especially telling, I thought, was the darkness of it all, with the more sinister utterances as compelling as the clangorous ones!

What a change, as the scene shifted to “The Court of Love”, with everything cool and fresh once more – a superb evocation! The Wellington Young Voices sounded as they looked – bright, eager and innocent, followed by Amelia Berry’s silver-toned “Siqua sine socio”, beautifully supported by the winds. Christian Thurston’s soulful “Dies nos et omnia” came over well, with a properly pathetic-sounding  falsetto and a po-faced descent at the end, the self-communing aspect ruefully conveyed.

As for Amelia Berry’s “Stetit puella”, with those melismatic “Eias’ at the end of each verse, well who would not have fallen in love with her by the time she had finished floating the second one towards and all around our helpless sensibilities? Marc Taddei then took “Circa mea pectora” at a tremendous lick, the repeated Mandaliets almost whizzing into orbit at the end of each verse! The men-only chorus “Si puer cum puella” got a terrific response from the voices here, vigorous and clear-toned, with baritone Christian Thurston characterfully spurring them on, the succeeding “Veni, veni venias” giving the sequence even more visceral excitement, the conflagration spreading from the voices to the orchestra with what seemed like animal energy!

We needed settling down for a moment after that, Amelia Berry’s “In trutina” giving us a precious sequence of gorgeously-shaped singing, the top notes perhaps not as free as in the previous solo, but the descents as graceful and seductive as could be. “Tempus est locundum” then burst in, the children’s choirs (in two parts on either side of the platform) bobbing up and down to sing their refrains by turns with the baritone, the final time all together! This time, at “Dulcissime”, Amelia Berry’s ascent was breath-taking, the line positively snow-capped! – and her final phrase, dream-like and enraptured, immediately put me in mind of soprano Emma Fraser here in the same hall in 2014 who had at that time put me in mind of the incomparable Lucia Popp! What more can one say?

The penultimate “Blanchefleur and Helen” from choir and orchestra made an overwhelming impact straight afterwards (but I forgot to listen for the ringing bell, of which I’m terribly fond!). Whether there or no, we were summarily returned to the mercies of the Empress of the world, “Luck”, with the same massive percussive chords and driving energies as the work had begun with, what now seemed an age ago! Naughtily, but forgiveably. Marc Taddei “held onto” the work’s final chord, asking for more from his singers and players, and, excitingly, getting what he wanted! – a resplendent ending to a remarkable performance and a wonderfully adventurous concert!





“Strings for Africa” joyously fill the vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sinfonia for Hope and Stringendo presents:

JS BACH – Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor BWV 1052
Antonio VIVALDI – Concerto for 4 Violins and ‘Cello – No.10 of Op.3 “L”estro armónico” RV 580
Gabriel FAURE – Cantique de Jean Racine (arr. for ‘cello ensemble)
JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051 (arr for viola/’cello ensemble)

Diedre Irons (piano),
Amelia Hall, Martin Riseley. Monique Lapins, Konstanze Artmann, Rupa Maitra, Martin Jaenecke, Lucas Baker, Claire Macfarlane, Sandra Logan, Sarah Marten, Robin Perks, Lucy Maurice (violins),
Sophia Acheson, Peter Barber, Elyse Dalabakis, Xi Liu (violas)
Inbal Megiddo, Heleen du Plessis (‘cellos)
Chris Everest (continuo guitar)
Sinfonia for Hope
Donald Maurice (conductor)

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

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

Back In November of 2019 I attended an event called “Cellos for Africa”, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City,  one described by its organisers as “a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration”, featuring a variety of performing individuals and groups brought together by Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice. The event’s primary purpose was to raise funds for a school in Africa which had been established in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 by New Zealander Denise Carnihan and her husband Chris. More than $8,000 was raised by this Porirua concert to support the venture, named the “Tamariki Educational Centre”, and situated in the poorest part of Nairobi. This latest concert, “Strings for Africa”, was a kind of follow-up, the funds intended to help establish a fully-fledged music programme at the school.

Both Denise and Chris Carnihan were present at this latest concert, and at the conclusion expressed their heartfelt thanks at the efforts of the event’s organisers and the assembled musicians, as well as acknowledging the support of the members of the audience. We were, throughout the evening,  treated to what could be best described as a kind of “string-fest” – if one forgot official designations and regarded Diedre Irons’ piano as a “stringed instrument”, one could indeed say that the entire company of musicians were string-players!

As befitted the occasion’s focus on the establishment of a school music programme, a goodly number of the evening’s instrumentalists were school-aged children, members of a group called Stringendo, a Wellington-based children’s string orchestra, one which opened the evening’s programme with a performance of JS Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, conducted by Donald Maurice, the soloist with the ensemble being none other than the aforementioned Diedre Irons! Playing the St.Andrew’s grand piano set back amidst the ensemble players as befitted a kind of “sinfonia concertante” work,  Irons gave a sturdily-focused and clearly-articulated reading of the first movement’s solo part, duetting most charmingly with the violins in a number of places, and plunging into a mini-cadenza which sparked and scintillated like a firecracker, the pianist’s characteristic spontaneity of manner keeping us nicely guessing as to the moment of her instrument’s reunitement with the orchestra!

The sombre, unison statement of the slow movement’s opening theme gave it all great gravity, and a modicum of tension as to its eventual destination! I enjoyed the accompanying strings “sighing tones”, a touching sensitivity evident in the young players’ relating their phrases to the soloist, and the latter in turn elaborating upon the simple, emotionally-direct string figurations. The final  episode enchanted as well, with the strings quietly joining Irons’ melodic line in unison, the utterances spare, and extremely moving!

Sprightly, energetic and animated at the outset, the finale began with the piano creating its own frisson of excitement, and the orchestra its own version of exhilaration, the notes clearly played and their energies well-conveyed. The soloist was never left unattended by the strings for long, the fount of Bach’s invention astonishingly vigorous and varied throughout, and the detailings never less than ear-catching, such as the observance of different dynamic levels and the setting of soaring lines against rapid-fire accompaniments. Irons’s solo part became somewhat fired up towards the piece’s end, but the orchestral musicians maintained active participants right to the final exchanges – well done!

One couldn’t help catching one’s breath as the soloists for the next work on the programme, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins RV 580, came on to the platform – it was as though the concert had momentarily “cornered the local market” regarding violinistic talent! With Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley on one side, and Monique Lapins with Konstanze Artmann on the other, sparks were ready and set to fly in this work, the music catching into conflagration from the very opening, Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley setting things in motions, answered by Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann with the ensemble’s support, straightaway establishing a dynamic variation in the exchanges by way of indicating that no stone of interpretative contrast would be left unturned.

Every solo was characteristically “eventful”, not only notes-wise, but in dynamics and antiphonal direction and its augmentation by any one or more of the “company”, the interchanges filled with the drama of variety of utterance – what to the casual listener might have at first seemed a “sameness” of texture and figuration, with the propulsive opening theme driving the music along, drew us with each repetition further into the panoply of the music’s fantastic world.

The slow movement began with a series of dramatically-delivered gestures, the big dotted-note chords alternating with shimmering arpeggiated figures for both the soloists and the ripeno  – a central episode contrasted this solemn mood with a ghostly dance, as if a chorus of sprites lurking behind the great columns of sound briefly and impishly showed themselves, enjoying their “moment” before dancing out of sight once more.

The sprightly, triple-time finale reinvigorated the sound-picture, the company bending all backs in delivering the vigorous opening theme, before each of the soloists launched by turns into an elaborately modulated discourse, Amalia Hall getting the lion’s share at first, but with the others joining in the rapid-fire exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s cello as well reminding us at times that the concerto is actually designated “for four violins AND ‘cello” in its place in the Op.3 “L’Estro L’Armonico” collection! What else could one feel when it was all over but privileged to have “been here” to witness the euphoric joy of such music making!

The next item was “unprogrammed” in a written sense, being intended as something of a “surprise”. A group of ‘cellists currently under the tuition of Inbal Megiddo, here gave us a transcription  of an 1865 choral work by Gabriel Faure, Cantique de Jean Racine, originally a four-part work for mixed choir and keyboard. I forgot to actually count the cellists in the group, but there must have been at least eight, including Inbal herself – a gorgeously rich sound! The players infused their various lines with plenty of feeling, nicely inflected and tellingly shaped – I thought there was remarkable strength and confidence in the lead cellist’s playing (at the opposite end of the line from where Inbal was sitting). I liked the group’s intensities in the softer moments of the piece, catching the feeling as readily as during the more outwardly-expressive moments in the music, concluding with a particularly touching final phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of the Sinfonia for Hope to perform for us, an orchestral group established in 2018 for fundraising purposes supporting humanitarian causes, the present Nairobi project being the group’s 2021 focus. Before the group’s item got underway conductor Donald Maurice expressed thanks to both Inbal Megiddo and Heleen du Plessis, describing them as central to the organisation of the evening’s music-making, after which he invited the organisers of the Nairobi Project, Denise and Chris Carnihan, onto the stage as well, the couple expressing their thanks to the musicians, organisers and the audience for their support for the Nairobi venture via the evening’s musical activities. It was gratifying to be told that, as a result of this evening’s concert, the projected music programme at the “Tamariki Educational Centre” in Nairobi would be able to be established.

The Sinfonia’s item was one with a difference, a performance of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 played by an astounding assemblage of no less than twenty-four viola players, along with a large group of ‘cellists, plus a continuo guitar, all conducted by Donald Maurice. It all began with a will, the rich massed viola sound rolling around and about the church’s vistas, each group’s phrases gleefully bouncing off the other’s with almost bumptious heft in places, though allowing ample spaces for the lines of the two ‘cello groups to come through as well. At the outset I found the reiterations of the main theme exciting when re-emphasised by each of the groups, but my ear began increasingly to listen for and appreciate the less assertive lines and phrases and their interplay, finding a different kind of excitement in the play of the “terraced” sounds at the varied dynamic levels.

The slow movement then provided the greatest possible contrast to what we had heard thus far, with solo strings and guitar continuo, the four players, Peter Barber and Sophia Acheson (violas), Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Chris Everest (guitar) transporting our sensibilities in the most delightful fashion, a truly memorable performance expressing such finely-wrought contrasts of light and shade, warmth and focus, and strength allied to delicacy as to disarm critical processes…..

After this, the finale’s “jolly hockey sticks” effect of the massed strings’ return brought us back down to earth in the most appropriate way, with sequences of tumbling warmth vying with moments of delicacy and playfulness.  I enjoyed the music’s modulatory swerves into more distant realms, and the dogged meticulousness of the figurations’ homeward journey to the point where the main theme relievedly gathered the threads together and roared out for the last time – what palpable pleasure there was in its final delivery, and in the audience response , a moment to acknowledge and truly cherish as a memory of the evening’s delights!

Welington Youth Orchestra and Mark Carter with violinist Lucas Baker – a Transatlantic treat!

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
Music by Barber, Britten, Gershwin and Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Overture “The Wasps” (1909)
BARBER – Violin Concerto,  Op.14
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem,  Op.20
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris  (1928)

Lucas Baker (violin)
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St. James’ Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Saturday, 15th May, 2021

The idea of “music that makes one’s mouth water” is, of course, an entirely personal matter, there being literally hundreds of pieces and combinations of pieces which would produce such a response amongst music-lovers – but for me, the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s presentation at Woburn’s St.James’ Church on Saturday hit the spot from the moment I opened the printed programme just before the concert began. I’d seen the “Transatlantic” publicity blurb, with its highlighting of the Barber Violin Concerto, performed by Lucas Baker, but only the names of the composers whose music was to be played alongside this work – so I was all the more delighted at the prospect of hearing the other three pieces, all particular favourites, in the one concert!

Another pleasant surprise was rediscovering the positive aspects of the venue’s acoustic regarding the orchestral sound, one which I’d commented on in a previous review as actually being somewhat “too lively” – here, the  different orchestral textures of the opening piece, Vaughan Williams’ attention-grabbing orchestral frolic  The Wasps  Overture, rang out most divertingly, from the raucous whirrings which opened the piece to the plethora of instrumental strands delivering the concluding “combined” themes of the work at its climax. The generous reverberation gave added weight and tone to parts of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and enhanced various touches of glamour and sophistication to Gershwin’s adventurous An American in Paris. We certainly felt as if we were inhabiting the “same space” as the band, and enjoying a lot more besides just the notes!

Any concert that begins with VW’s “Wasps” Overture immediately “commands” its audience’s attention – and so it proved here, with the great orchestral “buzzings” goaded to a frenzy by various percussive punctuations. Mark Carter set a jolly dancing tempo for the allegro which allowed the combination of rhythmic verve and soaring melody to “swing” in entirely complementary ways, leaning nicely into the “big tune” which was taken up gloriously by the strings, the winds giving poignant support as the music’s colours rang the changes. The jauntiness of rhythm got by Carter from the players at the return of the “wasps” was positively infectious, leading to the brass’s exciting  clarion calls and irruptions of percussion which pounced on their opportunities to join in the welter of sound! – I liked the lovely legato of the trumpet’s reiteration of the soaring theme, beneath which the strings energetically danced the allegro, the ensemble splendidly robust, conductor and players capping the piece’s ending off with an exhilarating sense of arrival.

What could have contrasted more to this than the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto? – a lovely, lyrical outpouring from soloist and orchestra alike began the work with great tenderness and ardour hand-in-hand, the winds contrasting this heart-on-sleeve manner with a dancing, descending motif that reappeared throughout the movement.  The evolving orchestral textures by turns took us through sequences where full-bloodedly melody gave way to sequences of wistfulness and playful impulse which were suddenly became irruptions clouding the soundscape. Lucas Baker’s playing seemed, chameleon-like, to flower with the music –  more confident, I thought, with the bigger gesturings than with some of the more filigree figurations, his vigorous attack steadfastedly carried the music through the dancing sequence towards those massive orchestral gesturings which seemed suddenly to collapse under their own weight! Baker and his oboe soloist colleague together brought us reassurance by turning once again to the composer’s comforting descending dance theme, one which floated upwards to finish the movement.

A beautiful oboe solo began the slow movement, superbly delivered here, the strings , clarinet and horn taking the melody onto the soloist, whose first focused musings were “charged” by orchestral agitations led by the brass. Though Baker seemed less sure of himself in the heavier, more angular sequences, his confidence returned for the more romantic horn-accompanied passages – and the  rarefied solo sequence just before the impassioned entry of the strings was simply lovely, as was the recitative passage immediately following the orchestra’s taking on of the full-blooded gesturings, Baker delivering the open-hearted beauty of the writing to the rapt ending with great commitment.

A timpani figure began the finale, over which the soloist began a molto-perpetuo rhythm, with the orchestra contributing flecks of colour, a wonderfully rollicking journey brought off here with great aplomb. Baker’s control was splendid throughout, his energies carrying everything along with his instrument as the orchestral presence grew through a crescendo to a hammered climax, the strings taking over the rhythm, the soloist wrestling it back for a few measures, and the orchestra seizing control once again. At the work’s end, soloist and orchestra went for broke hammer and tongs, mixing concerted shouts with helter-skelter solo figurations, and  unequivocal concluding chords.

The church’s ample acoustic helped make the beginning of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem something of a sonic event, highlighting the committed efforts of the players, the irruptions thunderous and oppressive, engendering a sense of deep hurt, sorrow and anger, the instruments speaking for human voices and giving tongue to feelings. From the utmost depths the sounds gradually ascended, the strings followed by the brass and winds, the textures increasingly strident and agitated. With the heavy percussion adding its weight the full orchestral force was superbly brought into play, through to a shell-shocked aftermath – the sudden irruptive fragments of energy then re-ignited brilliantly spreading inexorably through the orchestra, tongued notes from the winds, stinging col legno strings and mocking chatter from brasses. The saxophone lamented, the trumpets sneered, the percussion flecked off shrapnel-shards of notes, while the rhythms built to brutal unisons at the climax, after which the exhausted textures fragmented into silence – how heart-warming, then, was the ensuing dialogue sung here between winds and horns, with the strings turning the textures into upward-thrusting columns of light, augmented by the whole orchestra! The aftermaths were so very moving, with the brass solemnly sounding a warning phrase for the future before the final hope-filled roulade from the strings dissolved into the quietly stoic wind chords at the end. Such great work from the orchestra, conductor and instrumental soloists!

The concert concluded on a rather less burdened note with George Gershwin’s exuberant An American in Paris, a world that seemed far removed from the previous work’s troubles! I’d thought the Britten piece showed off the orchestra’s qualities splendidly, but this differently-focused, more  extroverted Gershwinreally opened up the band’s corporate and individual capabilities, even if the first Parisian taxi whose horn we heard had a first-note hiccup! – but no problems thereafter! That first orchestral paragraph really “set the scene” here, with the tunes roaring through, a prominent one being  “My Mum gave me a nickel”, a vivid contrast with some of the piece’s mood-changes, as the traveller wandered from place to place, the loneliness (a gorgeous violin solo) as palpable as the hustle and bustle.

Throughout, I thought Gershwin’s score was made a living entity by these players, as with the cool bluesiness of the famous trumpet solo, and the insouciant swagger of the accompanying rhythmic trajectories, the style caught to perfection, its extrovert manner beautifully tempered in places by the playing’s tenderness and sensitivity (the strings’ delivery of the bluesy tune, for instance), and the ebb and flow between the two modes beautifully controlled by Mark Carter. Gershwin’s scoring of this work throughout indicated here that both of the eminent French musicians he approached for lessons were right to recognise there was little either of them could teach him, and that his own home-grown “idioms” were the important things to further nurture and develop, the second, jauntier trumpet tune, for instance, again played here with incredible panache – and I loved the “drenched” string/wind sound the players brought to the swinging theme that followed soon after, immediately precluding the music’s “breaking up” and reforming with a vigorous rendition of the original bluesy trumpet theme.

Suddenly we were swinging along with the opening music, taxicab horns and all, and heading for a great peroration – a final bluesy turn of phrase, a crashing chord, and we in the audience were left applauding and shouting our approval! Heroes all, these players, with some star turns, all of which were properly acknowledged – very great honour to all at the realisation of such a splendid concert!







Holly Mathieson’s “Dream” debut concert with the NZSO….

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
FANTASTIQUE – Music by Takemitsu, Dorothy Ker and Berlioz

TORU TAKEMITSU – Dream (Yume no Toki)
DOROTHY KER – The Third Dream
HECTOR BERLIOZ – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Holly Mathieson (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, May 14th, 2021

If this were Australia, the use of the word “Dreamtime “ would perhaps more readily come to mind as an idea which loosely connects the three pieces played in this evening’s concert – as it is, in the case of the opening work, Toru Takemitsu’s 1981 work Dreamtime (Yume no Toki), the composer proclaimed his interest in the idea as a kind of starting-point, inspired by an invitation to attend a gathering of Aboriginal singers, dancers, musicians and storytellers at Groot Eylandt, an island in the Australian Northern Territory. Takemitsu never intended the work which eventuated to represent Australian indigenous culture, and much less the “true concept” of the Dreamtime, as would more obviously neither Dorothy Kerr’s nor Hector Berlioz’s work – each piece instead evokes in its own way a “sense” of what the subconscious mind can convey in the form of dreams pertaining to vastly different worlds and personalities.

It made for an extraordinarily thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying evening’s music, one I thought most skilfully reimagined and directed by New Zealand conductor Holly Mathieson, making her debut with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I first encountered her work as a conductor of opera, which to my ears resulted in a riveting realisation for New Zealand Opera of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”; and was thus anxious to compare her work as a symphonic conductor with another New Zealander who’s recently made HER debut with the orchestra, Gemma New – it’s kind of ironic that both musicians currently have music directorships of orchestras in Canada after working as assistant conductors with prestigious ensembles, Mathieson with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and New with the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra in the US.

Hazardous though the practice can prove for those less adept, Mathieson took the microphone on her arrival and spoke with us, enthusiastically welcoming us to the concert, and deftly characterising the pieces we were about to hear with some well-wrought descriptions and images.  She advised us to “put on our Debussy/Ravel ears” for the Takemitsu work we were about to hear, before cautioning us that the Dorothy Ker work that followed would be a completely different kind of “dream experience”. She then demurely indicated that we would be left to our own imaginations’ devices regarding the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique”, the music’s scenario being so well-known and the movement’s titles allowing our fancy plenty of free rein.

Takemitsu’s self-avowed love of French music to my ears haunted his Dreamtime, its textures hovering between a kind of Debussy-esque impressionism and a Messiaen-like unpredictability, yet throughout the composer brought his own kind of gentle volatility to its language, a capriciousness that made each of the work’s wave-like impulses weave its own spell before drawing back into mystery – we found ourselves at one and the same time sated with the fantastical detailing of each outpouring, every gentle irruption of sound uniquely constituted, yet refreshed by the wonder of the ebb which ruled the course of each flow. I found it all exerted a spell from which I was awoken by silence, everything miraculously wrought by orchestral playing of the utmost delicacy and the surest motivation, and contrived by what seemed like limitless sensitivity of direction from the conductor. I was reminded here of the famous British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known prescription for successful interpretation as “maximum virility allied to maximum sensitivity”, with the music’s focus never in doubt throughout moments of both intensity and serenity. The piece’s fourteen minutes seemed akin in a timeless sense to poet William Blake’s phrase “eternity in an hour”, where the poet’s words become the agents of vast possibilities similar to those in Takemitsu’s music.

Nothing could have been more different to Takemitsu’s evocations of light and movement than the deep darkness of the concert’s next piece, Dorothy Ker’s The Third Dream, a work whose cavernous percussive impulses at the beginning suggested primordial gestation processes involving deep awakenings, as if the listener had been put in synch with “deep earth” mysteries. The programme note quotes Ker as tracing the origins of this work back to a music theatre work she wrote derived from the Greek myth of Iphigenia, a princess whom the gods demanded be sacrificed by her own father, Agamemnon, in exchange for a “fair passage” to the wars at Troy for him and his army, and whose mother, Clytemnestra relived her anger and despair at her daughter’s sacrifice through dreams. These dreams intensified her anger to the point where “The Third Dream” culminated in Clytemnestra murdering her husband on his return from the Trojan Wars – Ker “lifted” this sequence from the theatre work and reorchestrated it for full symphony orchestra.

From the darkness the sounds gradually coagulated, each impulse a kind of “awakening strand” which wrapped itself around others and stimulated further growth, much of which came from instruments whose players were directed by the composer to establish their own trajectories, unsynchronised with others, a textural and rhythmic scenario which at once engendered “freedom and chaos”, the flecks of impulse becoming like shrapnel, the detailings leaving harsh, indelible imprints. The percussion’s frenzied tatooings and seismic rumblings stimulated shouts of exuberance  from the brass before the opening thundersheet textures returned, bringing with its unrelenting presence an increased volatility, allied to a tremendous weight of baleful, almost vengeful intent, some of the darkest-browed music I’ve ever directly experienced! A rawness, befitting spent and despairing inclination, moaned a lament as the music sounded its death-knell.

After the interval we were intrigued to see a relatively unfamiliar figure approaching the podium to take up the microphone – it turned out to be the orchestra’s contrabassoon player, David Angus, bent upon a mission, that of marking the retirement and final appearance of his colleague in the orchestra, Principal Bassoonist Robert Weeks, with a speech of appreciation and farewell that was amongst the funniest and drollest salutation to a colleague I’ve ever heard given. To his credit, Robert Weeks, after taking a few moments to recover, managed to get to his feet to acknowledge our tribute made by way of applause – amid all the amusement, a moving moment!

So it was then time for a “third dream” of a different kind, that of Hector Berlioz in his “Symphonie Fantastique” of 1830. The work’s title immediately poses a difficulty for any aspiring interpreter of this work – does she or he emphasise the “Symphonie” or the “Fantastique” in the piece? In a sense the two terms denote opposing characteristics, broadly, those of order and fancy, respectively – and any conductor of the work will seek to “marry” these opposite qualities in a more-or-less coherent sense according to her or his idea of what will “work” best.

I thought Holly Mathieson got the first movement absolutely right in terms of finding a balance between structure and spontaneity – the opening music dreamlike, fragmented, episodic, creative, seemingly conjured out of the ether,  the conductor fluid in her movements, tending to use both arms as well as the baton to describe whole roulades of sound with her gestures, but getting the required “attack” as the strings raced through the cross-rhythms to the first “peak” of excitement, and pointedly bringing out the wind augmentations to the strings’ excitable reiteration of the opening. And what a magical sequence we next enjoyed! – with the strings descanting the horn and winds just before the marvellous string tremolandi which led to the appearance of the “idee fixe”, the “motif” which Berlioz will use to denote his ‘beloved” in her many guises throughout the work.
The melody here was buoyant, eager, supple and yielding, and readily “gathered in” as the music gratifyingly pirouetted into the repeat, the fluency and dexterity of the playing even more free and astonishing a second time round! At the development. It was the lower strings that burgeoned forth excitingly with a series of phrases that excitably led to a series of great crescendi, breaking off to allow the horn to introduce the “idee fixe” on the winds this time, the strings grabbing the attention again with a fugal passage, at the end of which Mathieson beautifully facilitated a “moment” of reflection, an “are we all here” sequence, with the lower strings growling their assent.

It was time for the oboe to instigate the thematic passage that must have amazed contemporary ears with its startling modulatory explorations and almost vertiginous swerves of harmony, building up to a great tutti passage, the conductor here not perhaps getting the most exciting and recklessly abandoned playing I’ve heard, but certainly the most detailed! – a second crescendo reinforced its confident sense of arrival, and subsequent readiness to “sing” the movement’s epilogue as if it were a hymn, and the moment had created something almost transfigured…..

At the swirling, mist-shrouded beginning of the second movement, “Un Bal”, I noticed the conductor actually pirouetting on one foot at one point, giving an extra bit of swing to the dance’s opening, the waltz-tune itself then relaxing into a sensual and dream-like manner. I liked the extra angularity of the double basses’ accompaniments to the “idee fixe” in its appearance, and the richness of the string-tone, even if the solo cornet’s optional extra colour and character was missed. Mathieson caught the gathering of excitement at the dance’s end, the clarinets and flutes bringing out the sensual beauty of the melody associated with the “beloved”, before the strings spectacularly whirled everything and everybody away in the dance’s coda.

The beautiful exchanges between the shepherds’ pipes at the beginning of the “Scène aux champs”, with the offstage oboe replying to the song of the cor anglaise onstage, inspired the violas to enchant us with their rapt voicing of the ascending melody which followed (a lovely accented note at one point!), the conductor getting such astonishingly atmospheric playing from all concerned here – the textures achieve a real “glow” with the help of the horn and the wind choir. Later, the cellos similarly delighted us with the richness of their tones, enhanced by the double-basses’ accenting of their accompaniments, though in the string passages that subsequently built up I thought that the conductor “kept back” the tremolandi outbursts that accompanied the winds playing of the “idee fixe”, as she seemed to do the tempestuous full orchestral outburst that followed. But how lovely were both flutes and clarinet in the passage that followed, joined by the equally poetic oboe at the end, Mathieson then deftly shaping the strings decrescendo just before the return of the shepherd’s song. The heartbreak of the abandoned cor anglais here was almost palpable, even if I thought the timpani were in reply allowed to get too loud too quickly, missing some of the initial menace.

Mathieson chose a quickish tempo for the “Marche au supplice”, exciting in its way, though perhaps having the effect of glossing over the nightmarish crudities and grotesqueries of the scene – the  bassoons’ mockery of the victim in the tumbrel, the timpani’s rumbling of the cart’s wooden wheels and the brass’s snarlings with the mob’s blood-lust – even so, the orchestral detailing leading up to the tremendous crashes in the march’s central section unerringly captured the ear, as did the ironic charge of emotion in the clarinet’s playing of the “idee fixe”, just before the piece’s gruesome climax, Mathieson grimly cutting off the brass’s shouts of triumph at the victim’s beheading.

Even if I felt that I wanted the climax of the symphony’s final “Witches’ Sabbath” scene to be a notch or two wilder and harsher, I thought Mathieson’s control of the opening of the scene was stunningly evocative, with the players delivering the focus and bite the music seemed to call for, the winds balefully “bending” their raptor-like cries, and the basses rumbling their cavernous tones with real menace. I did think the bells underpowered, the idea seeming to be that they sound from a distance, which unfortunately had the effect of lessening their louring, clamorous impact. The brass and percussion response throughout was for the most part overwhelming, even if those two simultaneously-played-though-not-quite-concurrent sets of repeated chords amidst the frenzy of the Witches’ Dance could have been further de-synchronised by the conductor – they sounded too integrated and well-behaved!! Still, the absolute mayhem that broke out at the end was properly gratifying, as was the audience response to the music-making, which, in tandem with Holly Mathieson’s promising NZSO debut, had helped to make this concert such a memorable and significant event, a most appropriate scenario in which to wish her the warmest of welcomes!




Megiddo and Thomson present ‘cello-and-piano treasures at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

MANUEL DE FALLA – Suite Populaire Espagnole (1914)
SALINA FISHER (b. 1993) – Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
NADIA BOULANGER – Trois Pieces (1911-14)
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Two pieces from “The Limpid Stream”
CLARA WIECK-SCHUMANN – Drei Romanzen Op. 22
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Sonata in F, Op.99, for ‘cello and piano

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

Sunday 9th May, 2021

‘Cellist Robert Ibell was originally scheduled to perform in this concert, but was prevented from doing so by injury,  his place being taken by Inbal Megiddo. I’m not certain whether the programme was the original performer’s choice, or whether Megiddo and pianist Rachel Thomson made changes – there was a rearrangement of the programme’s printed order, which Megiddo announced after she and Thomson had performed their opening item, an absolutely magical rendition of Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole. A pity that St.Andrew’s
has always been a difficult place for speakers without microphones to be heard, so that neither I nor my companions were able to clearly hear Megiddo’s announcement regarding  the programme’s order, so that we all had to wait for the interval to be assured by others of what we had heard. It all fell into place quickly enough once we knew!

The performers began the concert in the most captivating and compelling manner possible with Manuel de Falla’s collection of Spanish Songs, originally published as a set of seven for soprano and piano but performed here in an arrangement for ‘cello and piano (one of many for diverse forces) featuring six of the songs. I’m not entirely sure whether the performers followed the order as printed in the programme – for instance, it seemed to me as though the song Polo printed here as No. 4, was actually performed last, instead of Jota, its harsh, defiant and dismissive tones better fitting the description of the former in the programme notes.  The second song, too, surely must have been Asturiana, rather than Nana, the former’s opening melodic line so reminiscent of Granados’s piano solo The Lover and the Nightingale. What was more important than all of these detailings was the performers’ identification with the overall spirit of the music, along with each piece’s sharply-contrasted differentiation of focus – one couldn’t help but “feel” in Jota the growing animal excitement of the crescendi giving way to florid vocal-like expression in the cello’s recitatives; and, later, the volatile, barely-contained sexual jealousy in Polo, the same energised red-blooded thirst for revenge as in The Miller’s Dance from the same composer’s ballet El sombrero de tres picos.

At the beginning of the concert’s second item, Salina Fisher’s Mono no aware (物の哀れ) I found myself intently scribbling descriptive notes regarding the sounds I was hearing, hoping I would be able to later identify the music – though Fisher’s work was actually listed next on the programme, I wasn’t sure what we were hearing was hers or Nadia Boulanger’s work, though there didn’t seem to be much evidence of Debussy’s or Faure‘s influence in what was being sounded! The piece’s beautiful “awakening” with air-borne piano notes and sighing ‘cello lines wreathing themselves all about my sensibilities made a compelling start, as did a cosmos-like scenario that slowly developed from both nebulous clusters and deeply-wrought rumblings of piano notes to a playing-out in parallel with the cello’s epic realisation of the movements of celestial bodies, the   punctuated with passages of recitative-like eloquence – a kind of cosmic dance or ritual enactment led to a sequence of great interactive intensity, one which allowed itself to play out in contemplation of processes that suggested a kind of “certainty of impermanence “ – Fisher in her notes concerning the work wrote of the symbolic importance of “the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms” in contemplations of the kinds these sounds seemed to suggest. (All of these thoughts crystallised, somewhat to my relief, when Salina Fisher herself appeared on the stage to acknowledge the applause at the end of the piece – whew!)

Our whereabouts in the programme were gradually giving themselves away, despite a few moments of uncertainty in identifying the next work. The opening music here had a kind of “stoic bleakness” one could possibly ascribe to Shostakovich (but somewhat removed from Clara Schumann’s “Andante moderato”), the ‘cello’s contined expression of the melodic line’s loveliness poignant and heartrending, before both instruments briefly gathered up their intensities “into one ball” for a few Debussian seconds (!) and returning to the serenity of the opening, with lovely, deeply-sounded notes at the end! As if the ghosts of Shostakovich (and Schumann) hadn’t already been laid to rest, the following “amble through the woods” was far removed from a waltz, its canonic interplay more like Cesar Franck in its lyrical intensity – but though the ebullient finale was suddenly Shostakovich-like at the outset in its motoric octave figurations the 5/4 rhythms were hardly waltz-like, enabling my “internal jury” to take the plunge and confidently “find” for Nadia Boulanger, and be damned to the consequences! But still, what lovely music!

In the item that followed, the “Adagio” marking for the first of two movements transcribed from Shostakovich’s ballet score “The Limpid Stream” suggested at the outset something rather less assertive than what we heard in the music, the strident, assertive piano chords momentarily unnerving our growing confidence in “picking our way” through the items – fortunately Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello brought the music to order, taking up a languid, long-breathed song, aided and abetted by the piano throughout  whatever mood the music chose, in this case an almost Rachmaninov-like climax, with impressively-generated oceanic waves of sound emanating from Rachel Thomson’s sterling fingers, the ‘cello returning us persuasively to the gentler of the piece’s reminiscences. After this the Waltz was very “waltz-like, jolly and uncomplicated” with heart-warming flourishes of innocent enjoyment from all concerned.

During the interval our “listening conclave” had confirmed the Wieck/Schumann-Boulanger exchange, and felt much better as a result! So, we were able to settle down and enjoy the programme’s second half, beginning, of course, with the Drei Romanzen Op. 22 of Clara Wieck-Schumann, a work which was obviously a transcription of the original violin-and-piano work , which Clara had dedicated to the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, and performed it with him to considerable acclaim. Sadly, these were among the last pieces that Clara wrote, as after her husband Robert’s death in 1856 she concentrated almost exclusively on her performing career by way of helping to promote her late husband’s music.

One understands when encountering this music how various people at the time would have expressed regret that Clara no longer composed – she obviously possessed wonderful lyrical feeling, and the ability to convey such a quality in her writing for both piano and violin. I thought the flattened note in the work’s main theme was a masterly stroke – a kind of “talisman” which gives the music such magic and distinction. The sombre mood of the second movement was relieved by a more lively major-key sequence, with occasional bursts of playfulness in the piano/’cello exchanges, before the minor-key mood crept back into the music, unable, however to suppress a touch of major-key impishness with the final pizzicato chord . The last movement, Leidenschaftlich schnell, seemed to express a yearning for happier, more youthful times, the theme flowing passionately on the ‘cello over constantly-moving arpeggiated figures, the spirit of Robert, one feels, being unashamedly evoked, especially in the main theme’s ardently-rising “Widmung”-like figure.

And so to Brahms, and his Second ‘Cello Sonata – I confess to having a certain ambivalence regarding parts of the opening movement of this work, where it always seems to me that there’s insufficient “room” for all the tones and figurations of the writing clamouring for attention – one feels nothing but sympathy for the hapless ‘cellist who fell foul of the composer’s waspish tongue while performing the work with him after she complained she couldn’t hear herself over the plethora of piano notes! Megiddo and Thomson certainly threw themselves into the “no-holds-barred” fray throughout, making the most of the lighter, more spaced-out moments (some particularly atmospheric playing during the “throbbing engines” sequences, repeated notes on the ‘cello “hung about” with chords and echoes from the piano – lovely!).

The two middle movements brought more light and shade into the music‘s world, the Adagio affettuoso with heartfelt singing tones from the ‘cellist, the textures limpid and breathing, building up to assertive exchanges between the cello’s pizzicato notes and the pianist’s rock-solid chords, followed by a return to the opening’s poetic singing tones and deft colourings from both players. By contrast, the Scherzo’s demonic energies straightaway put our sensibilities on the move, restless, agitated figurations from the piano, against a rollicking tune from the ‘cello, the “galloping horse” trajectories most excitingly, and in places even spookily, played, in contrast to which the movement’s trio section here flowed in a most heart-easing manner!

As for the finale, Megiddo’s and Thomson’s playing brought out for me the music’s similarities to the last movement of the same composer’s Second Piano Concerto, genial and ebullient at the start, varied of mood during its course and resolving all issues with bluff good humour. An appreciative audience readily showed its pleasure at the music’s conclusion, a feeling which continued after the applause had finished with comments of satisfaction from all sides reaching my ears – a most gratifying conclusion to a concert!

PS – Inbal Megiddo and Rachel Thomson are performing this programme as part of the Hutt Valley Chamber Music 2021 Concert Series  at 7:30pm on Thursday 20th May, in St.Mark’s Church on Woburn Road, Lower Hutt.




Michael Endres (piano) – a journey from classical to romantic at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents:
Music by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann

MOZART – Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, No. 13 K.333
SCHUBERT – “Wanderer Fantasia in C Major, D.760
SCHUMANN – Etudes Symphoniques Op.13

Michael Endres (piano)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae,

Sunday, 2nd May, 2021

I was particularly anxious to get out to Waikanae to hear Michael Endres give this recital as it had been a long time since I last heard him play – upon subsequently checking “Middle C” I discovered it was in 2013, and also at Waikanae  – and on that occasion he presented a programme that combined range and scope with judiciously matched entities, Schubert leading to Chopin in the first half and Ravel leading to Gershwin in the second.

This time, though perhaps not as widely-ranging repertoire-wise, the journey we were taken on by the pianist spanned the very different worlds of Mozart and Schumann via a “revolutionary“ work by Schubert, each piece demonstrating something of the expressive potential of the keyboard at the time of writing. Even Mozart’s piano (he owned an instrument made by Anton Walter) with two octaves less than a modern piano and lighter and smaller than Schubert’s or Schumann’s instrument would have been, would have spoken for its time with eloquence and character in its own distinctive voice.

I enjoyed without reservation Endres’s playing of both of the two Romantic works on today’s programme, Schubert’s outlandishly virtuosic “Wanderer” Fantasia, and Schumann’s profoundly expressive “Etudes Symphoniques”. And I enjoyed the pianist’s Mozart playing as well, (the B-flat Sonata K.333), though without feeling as though the notes and phrases had for him the same consistency of ownership or through-line identification that marked his playing  of the other pieces. The Mozart had some beguiling sequences, with some especially fleet-fingered and gossamer-toned playing at the outset, but we were unfortunately denied further exploring of these impressions by the lack of the first-movement repeat. The development provided some compensation by “getting down to business”, with minor-key stresses ruffling and clouding the ambiences, resulting in a certain wistful return to the sunniness of the opening, and by way of balance, a touch more emphasis given to certain details.

The slow movement seemed to me surer in its characterisations, Endres catching the charm and depth of feeling of the opening’s spacious operatic dialogue, and moving the music into darker regions almost nonchalantly at first, but gradually registering the “deep waters” referred to in the programme notes. I enjoyed the wonderfully expansive feel to the chromatic progressions that suspended time and motion in its drift back to the opening, this time through all lavishly decorated. Everything was beautifully-voiced, conveying that flow of expression in the music’s substance so very tellingly.

The finale’s light, tripping opening gathered playfulness and energy as the music unfolded, with a degree of impulsiveness “catching” the playing in places, serving the music well during the minor-key episodes, whose harmonic shifts resulted in some surprising twists and turns, our ears being taken on quite a journey! The “way back” to the opening sounded a trifle helter-skelter in places before a cadenza-like passage refocused the excitement, as bravura and delicacy by turns brought the music home.

Having said all of this, I thought it was when Endres began the concert‘s next item, Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasia D.760, that I realised what I was finding hard to fully “get” in his Mozart playing – right from the arresting opening chords there seemed to my ears a certain depth of focus, an intensity of  involvement with the music. Reading my review from the 2013 concert at which I last heard Endres play (also at Waikanae!), I commented then on the “characterful and flavoursome” Schubert-playing – and so it was here, even in a work whose essence couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the Impromptus he gave us on that earlier occasion.

Reckoned to be a real virtuoso challenge – and from all accounts one beyond its composer’s ability to perform adequately – the work here found an interpreter who possessed both the virtuoso “roar” and the recreative temperament that would encompass the work’s immediately contrasting qualities of heroism and capriciousness, the latter charmingly expressed in the second subject as a kind of insouciant “whistling on the trail” feeling in between the more urgent irruptions of energy, and the whole conveying in all of its contrasting parts that seemingly endless forward movement which defines the music.

What rapt stillness accompanied the transition into the work’s slow movement! – Endres’s playing filled the ambient spaces with such breadth of feeling, merging classical strength with romantic longing, opening up the music’s depths with bass tremolandi before seeming to pacify the ensuing agitations with a gorgeously “sung” major key version of the movement’s opening. How poignantly we were then taken between major and minor throughout this sequence, with the play of filigree decoration developing into positively Lisztian torrents of impulse! Endres held us spellbound with his command of the ebb and flow of sonorities, the ensuing calm suggesting a somewhat volatile balance of light and darkness via brooding atmospheres and dark-browed modulations.

The third movement sprang from the luftpause a little uncertainly, I thought, but soon established its audacity, with great, downward-swinging dotted-rhythm flourishes suddenly giving way to an almost carefree theme, the equivalent of the second subjects in the previous movements, one frequently “set upon” by darker forces, Endres giving us a “no-holds-barred” sense of turmoil, here. Being a “scherzo” we got a Trio section whose melody seemed here to be spontaneously improvised by the player, as did the Lisztian musings which accompanied the melody’s gradual decommissioning……certainty seemed to return with the taking up of the dotted rhythm once again, but   our sensibilities were then plunged into turmoil with what seemed like the work’s most tempestuous sequences thus far, flinging great roulades of notes every which way and modulating in what appeared like an alarmingly anarchic manner – marvellous stuff!

Two crashing chords and the fugal finale was upon us, the pianist straightaway giving us the music’s utmost in terms of energy, intoxication and wildness, and in doing so appearing to physically and recreatively become as one with both the notes and his instrument – astonishing! Nothing at the music’s conclusion would have done other than what did take place – a rapturous reception in fair tribute to what we had heard, followed by the wonderment of witnessing at first-hand such an overwhelming performance (and all of this before the interval!)……

Thrilling though Endres’ Schubert was as a “stand-alone” presentation, the concert’s second half “clinched” for me the reasons I love piano recitals, quite apart from the uniquely indispensable greatness of much of the repertoire – the unity of response from a lone performer drawing all of the music’s threads together, the intimacy of exchange between this performer, the music and listeners, and (especially) the formative and alchemic process of activation of the instrument’s characteristics (another way of saying I LOVE the sound of the piano!) all incline me by nature and circumstance towards such events.

Here, Endres appeared to very much carry on from where he had left off with the Schubert, his choice for the concert’s final item being a fruition, if you like, of certain elements of the latter’s music into full-blooded Romanticism, though still employing classical structures – Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques Op.13. The excellent programme notes accompanying the concert summarised the history of the work and the various “editions” that appeared after Schumann’s death – in this case, Endres chose the most commonly-performed version of the work, which inserts five additional variations that Schumann himself had removed for the first publication.

My first experience of this music was via a recording made in the 1960s by Vladimir Ashkenazy, one which helped popularise the work, though in the light of performances by other interpreters I’ve since heard, such as Sviatoslav Richter, the Ashkenazy now sounds less remarkable to me as an interpretation – certainly Endres’ playing of the work on this occasion seemed to me on a different plane of emotional involvement with the music, a few “quirks” involving repeats apart.

As with the Schubert work in the first half, our attention was arrested right from the outset with the opening chords of the “theme”, the sounds sharply-focused and in places the dynamics steeply-graded, as with the “ascent” in the first half of the melody, and the octave leap at the same place I the second half. I don’t propose to go through the work analysing each variation as heard here (which would become tiresome to read), but suffice to say that, despite/along with a somewhat arbirtrary attitude to repeats in certain places, every note Endres played seemed to have a “living” quality which contributed to the structural and emotional effect of that particular variation.

Throughout, the pianist’s concentration and involvement had the effect of the music seemingly recreated on the spot – nothing seemed left to chance, but was delivered in a wholeheartedly focused manner, involving the listener in a fascinatingly kaleidoscopic amalgam of structure and spontaneity. I loved, for example, the almost Prokofiev-like angularities of the fourth variation, the phrases accented and sharp-edged rather than dainty, with some of the accents almost percussive!

The playing seemed inclined to fully explore the sonorities each variation suggested, heightening our reactions to the music, a particular example being the Brahmsian  “Stars coming out at night” variation near the end (not unlike the first of the latter composer’s Op.119 pieces), the music almost completely transcending the theme, and creating a great stillness (Schumann very much in a Beethovenian mood, here) – and the repeats so enhancing our experience on this occasion, that the whole hall seemed entranced! This piece led to the penultimate variation, Endres creating a kind of  agitated suggestiveness here with a tremolando-like introduction and a ”worried” thematic figure as only Schumann could write. It was all played with every ounce of feeling that the pianist could muster up to the point where he simply eased the tension and focus and let the emotion gradually go – an amazing sensation of some kind of essence simply draining away to nothing (such great playing!).

So to the finale of the work (Schumann had borrowed a different theme for this from one of Heinrich Marschner’s operas), the opening of which was resoundingly muscular and heroic, with a gentler “reply” following. Ignoring a strange audience irruption at one point, Endres plunged undeterred into the different world of the second part of the piece, the “variation” theme then appearing as fanfares calling to and answering one another, the pianist performing orchestral-like miracles of sonority at the keyboard – later this “second episode” was repeated in a different key, leading to one of the Marschner theme’s highest notes being unexpectedly sharpened and the pianist going into what seemed like overdrive during the final pages. We were all duly swept away in a veritable deluge of notes and sounds, and, upon reassembling our sensibilities at the end, gave Michael Endres the standing ovation his playing richly deserved! An encore, most appropriately, Schumann’s “Traumerei” restored us to our lives, but piano playing of such commitment and splendour will, I’m certain, not be easily forgotten.

Camerata at St.Peter’s-on-Willis does Haydn (and others) proud…..

CAMERATA  – Haydn in the Church

JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major BWV 1049
MOZART – Serenade No. 6 in D Major K.239 “Serenata Notturna”
HAYDN – Symphony No. 13 in D Major Hob.1:13

JS Bach – Kamala Bain, Louise Cox (recorders), Anne Loeser (violin)
Mozart – Anne Loeser, Ursula Evans (violins), Victoria Jaenecke (viola),
Joan Perernau Garriga (bass), Laurence Reese (timpani)
Haydn – Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Anne Loeser (director)

St. Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 1st May, 2021

Camerata’s leader, Anne Loeser was kind enough to alert us to two musical anniversaries on this particular day, opening the concert at St.Peter’s-on-Willis with one, and concluding the evening’s music with another as a delightful “encore surprise”, more of the latter in a moment.  It was in fact the 300th anniversary of the presentation by JS Bach of his six Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, though not of their first performance in this form, as Bach had assembled a collection of already-composed works for purposes of the gift. No record exists of their performance for Christian Ludwig, whose ensemble in Berlin seems not to have contained the players needed to perform these highly variegated pieces; and the original manuscripts were rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives only in 1849, and published the following year.

So this music had waited an incredible hundred and twenty-eight years for the re-discovery that led to its publication in its “Brandenburg” form, though it’s hard to imagine Bach himself resisting opportunities to perform these works with his own ensemble at Köthen, which DID have the players to do so – but we don’t know for sure whether this ever happened. The earliest known recordings come from the 1920s from ensembles with “historic” names such as the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. As Bach had written for almost every instrument in the orchestra known to him in these works, twentieth-century ensembles would at first have had to do a fair amount of “adapting” the music for modern instruments, though more recent advances in historical knowledge of and skills in early music performance practice have resulted in many successful performances and recordings of these works more akin to what Bach himself might have imagined (or heard!).

Concerto No. 4 as performed this evening featured a solo violin and two recorders, along with strings and continuo, Bach’s score specifying a pair of “fiauti d’echo”, a description perhaps reflected in the pair’s playing of their instruments at the very back of the ensemble during the slow movement, as in a kind of “echo chamber”, most effectively conveying the music’s spatial characteristics in the ample St.Peter’s acoustic. I thought at the concerto’s beginning, the fleet-of-finger tempo conveyed a bright-and-breezy spirit, if in places the figurations sounded to my ears a tad breathless, with the recorders’ lines speeding by, and missing something of the charm of interplay. At times it seemed as if the lines were “running together” and thus sacrificing a little definition, even though the ensemble held, with Anne Loeser’s beautifully diaphanous solo violin-playing a tour de force of gossamer dexterity.

At the back of the ensemble for the slow movement Kamala Bain’s and Louise Cox’s playing blossomed, their instruments more clearly-defined and characterful than when in the front, their interplay beautifully filling the ambient spaces, the sounds remarkably “opened out” – and, by some alchemic means, maintained with the third movement’s beginning, even with the wind soloists returning to the front of the platform. I felt the tempi here sprang eagerly and naturally from the music’s character, a kind of out-of-doors ebullience driving it all. Bach delightfully “played” with his listeners by  blurring the distinctions between soloists and ensemble, making as if the movement was fugal at the beginning, but then introducing a violin solo (whose helter-skelter character was brilliantly thrown off by Anne Loeser), and going on to mix tutti and solo passages with fugal echoes, the ensemble relishing the accented dance-like hesitations towards the end as a precursor to a kind of “well, that’s it, folks!” concluding gesture.

Next came the adorable “Serenata Notturna” by Mozart, his “Serenade no, 6 in D K.239”. Despite being one of many originally written as background music for social occasions, this particular work merited direct listening attention, with its timpani-augmented introductory march, and quixotic middle section alternating arco and pizzicato figurations. Laurence Reese’s period timpani made a suitably pompous impression throughout the opening March, further enriched by the loveliness and variety of the ensemble’s “inner voices” and the warmth and vigour of Anne Loeser’s violin playing.

The middle movement Minuet began fairly conventionally with an engaging “kick” to its rhythmic gait, but with writing which constantly engaged one’s attention via the occasional unexpected modulatory “swerve” that delighted with its impudence. And the Trio’s garrulous triplet figures here and there over-ran themselves with cascading energies that sparkled and babbled impishly – here, altogether delicious in effect, as played by the quartet within the ensemble (with a double bass instead of a ‘cello), an ear-tickling contrast to the full band!

Straight into the finale we went, introduced by the droll opening violin theme, with its hearty answering phrase from the ensemble, and, to everybody’s delight, developing into an entertainment that the composer himself might well have relished, with the fun by turns hearty (buoyant timpani interjections), quizzical (“After you…” – “No, after you!” kinds of expressions shared in the exchanges between the Quartet’s Ist and 2nd Violins!) and faintly subversive (nonchalant interpolations of ANOTHER Mozartean Serenade, from the timpani and double-bass!). Happily, we all enjoyed the goings-on at least as much as the players did, and the music framing the fun was, as with the rest of the work, not just a pretty serenade, but filled with interest and variety.

For the final work on the programme the platform seemed to be suddenly crowded with extra players, most notably horns, whose contributions certainly added tonal weight and colour to the ensemble. Haydn’s Symphony No, 13 in D was in fact written for his largest orchestral complement to date available, with an extra pair of horns and timpani, even though the latter part in the autograph score seems to have been penned by someone else! The full-blooded D Major chord that began the work reflected this exciting new sonority, the winds and brass holding their lines through the strings’ and timpani’s sprightly opening figures – an extremely ceremonial and festive beginning! – rather like great and sonorous tolling bells sounding while human beings scurried busily about on the ground below!

The adagio cantabile that followed was notable for a solo ‘cello part accompanied by strings without winds, Ken Ichinose’s playing heartfelt and direct, the repeats giving the sequence something of an epic serenity, a mood which the following Minuet set about enlivening! Here, the timpani were a joy, and Karen Batten’s flute-playing eagerly took the chance to shine in the Trio. In my earlier Middle C review of the concert published a day ago I expressed puzzlement at the programme note-writer Gregory Hill’s comment that the finale, like the parallel movement in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, quotes a theme based on Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Hymn “Pange Lingua Gloriosi”, which was one I thought I knew well, having frequently sung verses from it during my school days. By way of response I opinioned that the Haydn/Mozart “crib” could have been actually taken from the “Kyrie” of the sixteenth-century composer Josquin Des Prez’s Missa Pange Lingua, a work derived from Aquinas’s hymn. However, after a revelatory exchange of messages, I’m find myself both surprised and indebted to Gregory Hill, who precisely pinpointed for me the occurrence of the motif in the original hymn – thus, I stand corrected! Certainly Haydn’s “treatment” of the famous four-note sequence yielded little or nothing to his great contemporary’s better-known exercise, using a similar amalgam of sonata form and fugue to telling effect, ranging from magnificently-sounded horn statements to ubiquitious string and wind exchanges, the whole enhanced by the liberal observance of repeats, and making for a veritable feast of orchestral interaction.

At the symphony’s conclusion, Anne Loeser made her “anniversaries” announcement, the second of which involved one of music’s most notable “one-hit” composers, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose name is forever associated with the opera “Hänsel und Gretel”, first performed in 1893, and whose death occurred one hundred years ago this year. Perhaps too,  it was partly the presence of all of those horns for the Haydn Symphony which inspired the choice of music for the encore, the opening “Evening Prayer” sequence from the opera’s Overture, the melody here superbly sounded by the heroic quartet of players in their most meltingly heart-warming mode, with alternatingly sonorous and delicate support from the rest of the ensemble – Haydn would surely have approved!