Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” a triumph for Witch Music Theatre at Wellington’s Te Auaha

Witch Music Theatre Charitable Trust presents:
SONDHEIM  –  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Chris Crowe
Mrs Lovett – Vanessa Stacey
Beggar Woman – Frankie Leota
Judge Turpin – Thomas Barker
Tobias Ragg – Jared Palleson
Beadle Bamford – Jthan Morgan
Anthony Hope – Zane Berguis
Johanna Barker – Olivia Stewart
Adolfo Pirelli – Ben Paterson

Ensemble: Devon Neiman, Emma Salzano, Nino Raphael, Katie Atkins, Isaac Andrews, Allegra Canton, Patrick Jennings, Michaela Cadwgan, Jackson Burling, Sinéad Keane, Minto Fung,  Natasha McAllister, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Joanne Hodgson, Jason Henderson, Tania Dreaver

Musicians: Mark W.Dorrell (Music director/keyboard), Karla Norton (violin), Samuel Berkhan(‘cello), Simon Eastwood/Jandee Song (double basses), Nick Walshe (clarinet), Peter Lamb (bassoon), Brendan Agnew (trumpet), Viv Read (horn), Brent Stewart (percussion)

Ben Emerson (director)
Nick Lerew (assistant director)
Joshua Tucker (technical designer)
Greta Casey-Solley (choreographer)
Emma Stevens (costumes)
Patrick Barnes (sound)

Te Auaha Performing Arts Centre, 65 Dixon St,. Wellington

Wednesday, 30th June, 2021

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” proclaimed the first singer shortly after the opening of Witch Music Theatre’s instantly-riveting Te Auaha production of the eponymous show  – no argument or dissent was brooked, as we had already been ensnared and drawn into an ominous, all-pervading scenario of compelling unease  generated by gothic, phantom-sounding organ figurations, dimly-perceived Nibelungen-like figures materialising from nowhere performing scrubbing-like tasks of enslavement, and a sudden, “scream-like” irruption of fearful , anguished noise, overwhelmingly visceral in its impact. We needed no further enjoiners to “attend” to what developed from this into a veritable cornucopia of theatrical action, the chorus’s taking up of the work’s exposition in an overwhelming and incisive way that never once flagged throughout the evening.

Director Ben Emerson’s approach to Stephen Sondheim’s recreation of the Victorian “penny dreadful” tale of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd has been to pull the action from Victoriana into post WW2 London, though somehow emphasising the more timeless themes of love and loss, lust and cruelty, obsession and vengeance which drive the social, economic and moral backgrounds, of the original tale, thereby, as Emerson puts it, “stay(ing) true to the text while creeping us ever closer to a chilling and hauntingly recognisable reality”, a recreative attitude that has enlivened many a starkly and impossibly cruel and monstrous folk-tale from various cultures. For me the “updating” of the scenario is always less important than the valid and believable depiction of those  qualities of “cynicism, moral ambiguity and corruption” – all of which are by no means new sins, however coloured by changing social mores.

A significant feature of this production was the integration of the orchestra in relation to the stage action. At first I thought this had been miscalculated as regards the solo singing – even with discreet microphoning, the vocal soloists’ tones often seemed masked by the sheer proximity of the instruments, no matter how sensitively played. My seat position, I think, accentuated this problem – second row from the front – from where everything at first seemed very loud. As the show went on, either the balances or my ears seemed to adjust, and I found myself less concerned regarding the singers’ audibility, and more increasingly attuned to the interaction between voices and instruments, to the point where it simply ceased to be a problem.

Central to the interaction between stage and instruments, and to the production’s general ebb and flow was music director Mark W.Dorrell, through whose hands and gestures it all came to life, increasingly so as the first part of the action proceeded. The characterisation of each musical moment, whether physical and energetic, lyrical and flowing, or poised and heart-stopping, was here  “grown” by Dorrell with his players and singers out of the whole with an inevitablilty that took our sensibilities inexorably onward and left us resonating with it all at the action’s end – masterful music-making from all concerned. I particularly relished the lurid deliciousness of the waltz tunes that accompanied some of the story’s blackest sequences, an instance being the hatching of the plan by Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett to not let the cadaver of the unfortunate “Signor Pirelli” become “an awful waste”! How wonderfully  macabre and gruesomely fascinating a marriage of music and theatre, with moods also brilliantly set alongside others inhabiting different parts of the spectrum – such as the song of the lovers, Anthony’s and Joanna’s “Kiss Me” counterpointing Judge Turpin’s and the Beadle’s discussion re enhancing the judge’s attractiveness to his ward, with “Ladies in their sensitivities”.

Ben Emerson’s direction made the most of the potentialities offered by the venue’s cheek-by-jowl proximity of stage and audience – the first few rows of seats in which I sat, were, most excitingly, in practically the same space as were the performers! – the propinquity of so many energetic, pulsating, sweating bodies right from the beginning gave the choruses a tactile quality not for the faint-hearted! I found the physicality of choreographer Greta Casey-Solly’s deployment of her forces most exhilarating (the asylum scene in Act Two had a particularly urgent, white-hot  quality), and the boldly-contrasted relief of the stillness of some scenes all the more telling – the raptness of Sweeney’s reunitement with his set of shaving razors (“These are my friends”) had a savagely ironic poignancy which then exploded into fierce joy as he exclaimed, holding the blades “My right arm is complete again!” – a moment whose power was as much the sum of the evocative surrounding parts as the gesture itself!

Technically, it was all a tour de force, the various stagings making the most of both different levels and refracted views (a clear perspex “curtain” making a telling variation on the “through a glass darkly” principle at certain moments – characters seen by us but not by those onstage, or given the illusion of concealment, adding a fantastic visual element to the barber’s various throat-cutting despatchings of some of his victims). Post-war and 1950s London would have in places probably have been almost as ill-lit, and smoke- and fog-filled as in Victorian times – though the  exterior scenarios recreated here reminded me more in places of Dennis Potter’s television series “The Singing Detective” than of Dickens. Joshua Tucker’s evocative lighting enhanced Emma Stevens’ costumes’ authentic period glow, and underpinned the morbid juxtaposition of the ordinary and the grotesque, with Mrs Lovett and  Sweeney, dressed in their “blood aprons” discussing a visit to the seaside.

Though some of the singing needed a tad more projection in places throughout the first act, I thought the characterisations of the principals irresistible and compelling throughout – the lovers, Zane Berghuis and Olivia Stewart as Anthony and Joanna, looked and sounded just as one might imagine them to do, Berghuis’s voice properly lyrical and romantic and Stewart’s voice sweet and tremulous, making a poignant blend, both responding wholeheartedly to the energies of their roles as well as to the romantic delicacies. As the Beggar-Woman Frankie Leota captured both the pitiable and the hard-bitten aspects of her character with real gusto, giving her frenzied “City on Fire!” sequence plenty of juice and her mutterings of “Mischief!” real bite.

The “villains”, Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan), were sharply differentiated, Barker’s depiction of the Judge a no-holds-barred, cruel, but torn and divided man, in enslavement to his lust for his ward Joanna, and seemingly in thrall to his guilt, as witness the self-flagellation scene (as convincing in this scene as any I’ve seen “live” or on video). By contrast, Jthan Morgan’s Beadle here was very much the dandified dilettante-like fop, his affected manner making him appear more to me like a character from a Restoration Comedy – but post-war Europe was in flux and manners and modes up for grabs, a world in which personalities such as Quentin Crisp could and did flourish. Here in Morgan’s portrayal was menace of a different kind, lurking beneath a polished, suave exterior.

Another “character” was the “Italian” showman Adolfo Pirelli, colourfully played by Ben Paterson, with his young helper, Tobias Ragg, (a sensitive characterisation by Jared Palleson), the showman delivering his song brilliantly in front of the crowd,  then later calling on Sweeney after the latter “outshaved” him in a contest, threatening to expose the barber’s secret past (as a deported convict), and meeting an aforementioned grisly end at Sweeney’s hands as a result, the “Italian’s” young helper Tobias duly “adopted” by the versatile Mrs Lovett.  The boy came to regard her as his “charge”, Jared Pallesen subsequently singing a heartfelt, almost desperate  “Nothing’s gonna harm you” to her, voicing his fears for her safety in the company of “Mr. Todd”, fears that ultimately proved all too real.

Though Sondheim’s work is ultimately about the central character, one couldn’t have a great “Sweeney” without a similarly larger-than-life stage partner – and Vanessa Stacey’s Mrs Lovett was the perfect foil for the haunted, obsessive “demon barber”, bringing all of the energy and magnetism the character needed to imprint her own personality on the action – affable, vivacious, practical, earthy and occasionally sensual, classically the opposite of her destined partner in almost every way, she was, in effect, Sweeney’s “dark angel”, firstly recognising his former self, and then reconnecting him with the initial talismanic instruments that once represented his livelihood, and now were transformed into tangible means of vengeance. Stacey’s singing and acting brought out both the character’s everyday qualities listed above, and crucially realised Mrs Lovett’s ultimate tragedy – that she deserved a better fate, but, however brutally and savagely, was somehow, with  ruinous irony, enabled to fulfil her destiny.

As Sweeney Todd, I thought Chris Crowe profoundly satisfying, both in terms of his stand-alone qualities as a character, and in his interactions with others and with the world in general. His acting epitomised a damaged, insufficiently nurtured being, replete with barely-repressed fear and anger, unable to shake off his desire for revenge, as if everything, including his own ultimate destruction, was predestined; while his singing was always finely-honed, his gradations of tone and timbre set upon specific intensities and emotions throughout. I felt an edge to his stage presence the whole time, one that exuded unease and wounded feeling, though never to excess – I’ve already mentioned the totality of feeling he brought to his reconnection with his barber’s razors, characterising their functions so viscerally and chillingly with the words “you shall drip rubies” – but in  so many other places he brought different tones of menace to the part, at one point “calling out” individual audience members as his potential victims in his desire for revenge upon humanity in general and at another cursing London and its cruelties –  “It’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabits it”……. He and Vanessa Stacey as Mrs Lovett  made, I thought, a splendid pair!

Circumstances prevented me from completing this review before the show’s Wellington season finished – however I would imagine the production to be regarded by anybody who attended as an excellent advertisement for any forthcoming Witch Charitable Trust Theatre presentations, as well as for the splendidly atmospheric Te Auaha venue and its tireless team of enablers. What else can I say but “Hats off to all concerned!”










Octogenarians make a splendid 17th-century pair

Baroque Voices and Palliser Viols present:
17th Century Octogenarians
Music by Heinrich Schütz and John Jenkins

HEINRICH SCHÜTZ  (1585-1672)
(from the Symphoniae Sacrae III 1650)
Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet (Unless the Lord build the house)
Was mein Gott will (What my God wills)
Mein Sohn warum hast du uns das getan?
(My Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?)
(from the Geistiche Chormusik 1648)
Auf dem Gebirge (From the mountains)
Sehet an den Feigenbaum
(Look upon the fig tree)
Ich Wei
β, dass mein Erlöser lebt (I know that my Redeemer lives)

JOHN JENKINS (1592-1678)
Pavan à 5 No.2 in G minor
Duet in D minor, No.3, for 2 Bass Viols
Fantasy à 4  No.6 in F “All in a garden green”
Fantasy à 5  No.3 in G minor
Fantasy à 3 for treble, two bass viols and organ
Fantasy à 5 No.5 in G minor

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker, Rowena Simpson (sopranos)
Hazel Fenemor, Milla Dickens (altos)
Peter Liley (tenor)
Will King, David Morriss (basses)

Palliser Viols – Rebecca Struthers, CJ Macfarlane, violins
Sophia Acheson, Will King, treble viols
Kevin Wilkinson, tenor viol,
Robert Oliver, tenor and bass viols
Imogen Granwal, bass viol,
Malcolm Struthers, double bass,
Douglas Mews, organ

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday, 20th June 2021

This concert gave cause for joy on a number of counts, not the least in providing a dry and relatively comfortable place in which to spend a couple of hours on a more-than-usually inclement Sunday evening – though not particularly warm temperature-wise, the interior of St.Mary’s Church worked its usual visual and atmospheric magic over the duration, adding to the beauty and variety of the sounds recreated for our pleasure by the two ensembles, Baroque Voices and Palliser Viols.  We were treated to a marked contrast of genres between the music of each of the two “Octogenarian” composers represented – though they were contemporaries, Heinrich Schütz and John Jenkins created vastly different sound-worlds by dint of their respective preoccupations. Schütz wrote practically no stand-alone instrumental music, and Jenkins no vocal music to speak of. And finally, augmenting the pleasure of our hearing such a variety of sounds, there were the informative programme notes written by Palliser Viols director, Robert Oliver.

Through Oliver’s notes we learned of the connections between Schütz and two of the other “greats” of his time, Gabrieli, and then Monteverdi, whose influences truly “informed” his own music. The notes concerning Jenkins are more to do with his upright character and complaisance as a human being, though his maintenance of the tradition of polyphony was fostered indirectly through Monteverdi’s example via various of the latter’s vocal works transcribed for viols by Jenkins’ colleagues, John (Giovanni) Coprario and William Lawes. Oliver remarked at the conclusion of his notes upon the overall achievement of both of the evenings’ composers, thus – “masters of counterpoint, sublime control of complex textures and structures, producing music of great integrity and beauty”…..

Opening the programme was one of three works from Schütz’s Symphonia Sacrae III of 1650 to be performed this evening, the first being Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet (Unless the Lord build the house), a setting of Psalm 127. A beautiful instrumental introduction heralded the singers’ opening, the sopranos entering in canonic imitation, Pepe Becker’s and Rowena Simpson’s lines resonating gratefully and vibrantly. Beginning in the low register bass David Morriss’s voice gradually blossomed at “Es ist umsonst” (It is vain) as the line rose, to sterling effect. Throughout , the contrasting  timbres of the two soprano voices were delightfully ear-catching, the ensemble bringing fruition at the final “Wohl den”, with the watcher secure, the citadel held against the enemy. A consort song from Geistiche Chormusik, Was mein Gott will (What my God wills) followed, for alto and tenor, the voices singing alternately rather than together, making an attractive blend in cross-patch places though with tenor Peter Liley’s voice predominant and sounding more engaged with the text, alto Hazel Fenemor’s delivery somewhat more contained than I would have wished. Beautifully rounded string-playing and organ continuum gave splendid support throughout.

Came the first of John Jenkins’ works of the evening, the Pavan No.2 in g minor. Involving 5 instrumentalists – including Will King, to my surprise, as a treble viol player! – the instrument propped up on the player’s lap, rather like a miniature bass viol! The Pavan made a gorgeously “layered” sound, the church’s acoustical “bloom” giving the sound an unearthly resonance, as if the gods were making music in Elysium. It all seemed bejewelled, kaleidoscopic and exquisite. Then we heard a Duet (No.3 in d minor) for 2 bass viols – an “Air and Variations”, the theme stately and melancholy, the three variations featuring both running figures and sombre variants of the theme, Robert Oliver’s and Imogen Granwal’s instruments expertly running the gamut of pleasingly- contrasted figurations.

Grisly stuff next, with Schutz’s Consort Song Auf dem Gebirge (From the mountains), the subject matter being the massacre of the “Holy Innocents”(male children under two years of age) ordered by King Herod in the wake of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. A false start meant we heard the opening twice before the voices came in, the two altos, Hazel Fenemor and Milla Dickens, both with soft voices, though with tones that seemed to suit the sombre nature of the text, and the music. Again the instrumental consort gave a rich bed of sound for the singers,  the words Viel Klagens, Weinens und Heulens” (Much Sorrow, crying and howling) more restrained and hollowed-out than strongly emoted. “Rahel beweinete ihre Kinder” (Rachel is weeping for her children) was similarly inward with a stark beauty, the voices almost instrumental-sounding in their blending – only the rising line at “den es war aus” (that it was over) animated the expression briefly at the end.

Two more Fantasies by Jenkins followed, the first enticingly titled “All in a garden green”, described by Oliver as “a catchy folk-tune”, played by four instruments, the second with a fifth player joining the group. The first of these in F major was the “lighter” of the two, the second by comparison far more melancholic and ritualistic, seeming to tap endless possibilities in its permutations of melody and harmonies, moving from minor to major mode in variously “shaded” ways, and often in unexpectedly fashion. By this time, with the concert’s interval upon us. we seemed to have come a long way from the weather we had left behind at the church door when first arriving.

A comely pastoral air greeted us by way of beginning the second half, sung in canon-like fashion to begin with by soprano (Pepe Becker) and tenor (Peter Liley), both voices forthright and winning, the dancing rhythms at “Das jetzt der Sommer nahe ist” (Summer is close) offset by the long lines and ensuing silence during and after “Himmel und Erde vergehen” (Heaven and Earth will pass), the voices imitating and echoing one another so very evocatively.

Up until encountering the first instrumental Fantasy that followed I hadn’t particularly registered the organ-playing of Douglas Mews in any way but with a predictable kind of enjoyment of the instrument’s “presence” in such tried-and-true hands – then, for some reason these distinctive sounds drew particular attention to themselves throughout the next two pieces – both at the opening and within the course of the Fantasy à 3 for treble, two bass viols and organ, Mews coaxed a particularly delightful figuration from his instrument, giving us glimpses of the “heavenly and Divine Influences” spoken of by one Thomas Mace, quoted in the programme notes. Curiously, I formed the impression that the following Fantasy à 5 No.5 in G minor was taking us on a particularly adventurous and even improvisatory course courtesy of the players, when suddenly the music was halted, the lines having gotten themselves temporarily jangled! – a case of spontaneity gone astray? – the lines of music certainly seemed for a few moments more-than-usually unpredictable as to their course, re their exploratory urgings and coalescent-points! – fascinating!

Robert Oliver mentioned in his notes, in relation to the dramatic nature of the concert’s next item, Schutz’s  Mein Sohn warum hast du uns das getan? (My Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?), how music had acquired increasing expressive possibilities at the time due to the rise of opera, exemplified by the composer’s setting of the passage from St.Luke’s Gospel describing the aftermath of the twelve year-old Jesus’ disappearance of the during a visit to Jerusalem and the anxiety of his parents, Mary and Joseph. The dark and serious sounds of the opening set the tone before two violins enlivened the textures, opening up the spaces for the two voices, soprano and bass, to voice their anxieties, Rowena Simpson’s Mary leading off with “Mein Sohn”, followed canonically by David Morriss’s Joseph, the lines following some lovely downwardly chromatic figures on “Schmerzen gesucht”, the sorrow palpable and affecting. The mood lightened with Pepe Becker’s entrance as Jesus, the vocal line lively and the tones sunny, the instruments echoing the singer’s energies! – the two violins echoed her guileless explanation “Wisset ihr nicht?” with great satisfaction!

Schutz “rounded off” this piece with a setting of Psalm 84, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How lovely are Thy dwellings), the ensembled voices relishing sequences such as “Mein Leib und Seele freuet sich” My body and soul are joyful”, with energetic and smiling tones, concluding with the richly-laden warmth of “Die dich loben immerdar” (They will praise Thee forever).

Concluding the concert as scheduled was Schutz’s setting of the well-known text, Ich Weiβ, dass mein Erlöser lebt (I know that my Redeemer lives), joyously dancing music, with the whole ensemble following on from the womens’ voices. At “Un er wird mich hernach” (And he will awaken me) the dancing rhythms gave way momentarily to declamation, the ensuing contrasts here and in other places enchanting! At the end of the piece the alternation of the declamatory “Und meine Augen warden ihn schauen” (And my eyes will behold Him), and the more excitable and joyous “Ich und kein Fremde” (I and no other) made for a both grand and excitable conclusion to a lovely piece. The ensemble, incidentally, encored the “Wie lieblich” section of “Mein Sohn, warum hast du”, at the concert’s end, bringing out the contrasting characters of the sections even more markedly and smilingly.

In all, a richly rewarding concert experience!



Supertonic conjures up arcadian realms for an evocatively-sung “Rest” presentation

Supertonic Choir presents:
REST: – Faure’s Requiem and Songs of Remembrance

Supertonic Choir
Music Director Isaac Stone
Soprano Nicola Holt, Baritone William McElwee,
Organist Michael Fletcher

Music by Herbert Howells, Elizabeth Alexander, John Taverner, Kurt Bestor, U2 (arr. Bob Chilcott), Gabriel Faure

Cathedral of St Paul, Molesworth St. Wellington

Saturday 19 June 2021

It was a drear Wellington night. A cold drizzle was falling. I expected to see a tiny dedicated audience huddling in the cavernous cathedral. I was wrong.

The church was a good two-thirds full, and the enthusiastic audience seemed pretty familiar with Supertonic. The choir was founded in 2014, and by my estimation is one of the youngest choirs in Wellington, as well as one of the larger choirs, with 64 singers. The average age seems to be under 30. The sound they make is zingy with youth.

The Music Director, Isaac Stone, is a well trained singer and choir director with a deep background in barbershop and consequently he has an exquisite sense of pitch. For a large choir, Supertonic is gloriously in tune; precise and clean. Isaac Stone is a confident but not ostentatious conductor. He gets exactly what he wants, because all eyes are on him.

The programme was built around the Fauré Requiem and comprised six smaller a capella elegiac works, with the Fauré placed second to last. (More of this later.)

The concert opened with a beautiful and well known work by the English composer Herbert Howells, ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’. Written in memory of John F. Kennedy, it has the fresh lyrical beauty typical of Howells. The text is from a poem by a fourth-century poet, translated by Helen Waddell, beginning:

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

All of that is sung by the three lower parts, piano, in a beautiful legato, until the soprano entry on the second page. The soprano sound had a passionate quality over more complex rhythms in the lower parts. The divisi sopranos produced a beautiful bell-like sound in the con anima section. The semi-chorus a little later sounded a tad untidy, as though the dotted rhythms were under-rehearsed; but the next divisi section was confident and together.

It is the sound of Supertonic that is so delightful: the freshness of youth plus the smoothness that is achieved with 60 singers. This was evident in the next work, ‘Y Comienzo a Bailar’, by Elizabeth Alexander, with piano accompaniment. The Spanish text is a soliloquoy of a woman preparing for La Dia de los Muertos, and includes a ravishing soprano solo, sung by Karishma Thanawala, one of the sopranos, with the choir sotto voce underneath.

Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ is also well known. Typical Tavener, using minimal material, and requiring utterly precise tuning over a bass drone. The work was most famously performed for the funeral of Princess Diana, sung as her coffin was carried out. Supertonic sang it splendidly; the dissonances were not labored, and the sustained singing built steadily to the crescendo, an outpouring of grief.

This was followed by a work called ‘Prayer of the Children’ by Kurt Bestor, an American composer of new age music and film scores. This is his best-known work, written in response to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and intended to be used to commemorate tragedies involving children. The words are banal, and the music not to my taste, but the choir sang it as though such thoughts had not occurred to them.

Yet the next work, MLK by the Irish band U2, arranged by Bob Chilcott (a former King’s College chorister), was the exact opposite: simple, direct, moving. It opens with a tenor solo (sung by Joel Miller, one of the tenors) with the choir backing him, and takes on a gospel feel, with a terrific low bass part. Coming after a lot of truly excellent singing, it was the stand-out piece of the first half of the concert.

The stage was reset during a short interval, with five string players and two soloists, soprano Nicola Holt and baritone William McElwee. The Cathedral organ is currently out of commission, so Michael Fletcher played the digital organ, which proved to be a mixed blessing (though the sight lines were good). The organ sound was too dominant in the first two movements, and overpowered the first baritone solo (‘Hostias’). But the choir! Such beautiful singing, with purity of tone and precise intonation.

The Sanctus was almost ruined before it began with an unscheduled ugly blurt of sound from the organ, but the choir’s entry was perfect. The entry of the men at the Hosanna was exciting, but the organ couldn’t match the choir’s volume at the first diminuendo and spoiled the effect.

Soprano Nicola Holt had to do only one thing, to sing the Pie Jesu, and she did it beautifully. She gave it the glorious full Aled Jones treatment and filled the cathedral.

The Agnus Dei had some splendidly sensitive accompaniment from the strings, but too much organ volume both there and in the Lux Aeterna. William McElwee’s Libera Me was assured and sat well in his voice. The organ’s Last Trump was almost too much, but the choir’s crescendo was magnificent, full and urgent. The women’s tone in the In Paradisum was light and ethereal, exactly as required –but once again the organ was just too dominant.

All in all, a gorgeous performance of a very well known and much loved work from choir and soloists with lovely string accompaniment.

And then… one last work. In this case it was an arrangement of a traditional South African song, and it is a pleasing work, well sung. But not well placed after the Fauré, which is after all a sublime piece of choral writing, and next to the plainchant Missa Pro Defunctis, the most perfect setting of the Requiem Mass text.

The Capital Band’s “Strange Meetings” a resounding musical success

The Capital Band presents:
Music by Hindemith, Haydn and Vaughan Williams
Poems by Wilfred Owen

The Capital Band
Musical Director: Doug Harvey
Concertmaster: Nick Majic
Poetry Reciter: Doug Harvey

HINDEMITH – Trauermusik
HAYDN – Symphony No.45 in F-sharp Minor “Farewell”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor (arranged for string orchestra by TCB)

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St,.Brooklyn

Saturday 19th June, 2021

In contrast to the evening’s dark, clammy, out-of-doors ambiences generated by the drizzing rain, the warmth and vibrancy of Brooklyn’s Vogelmorn Hall’s son et lumiere  and pre-concert bustle was a positive pick-me-up for this audience member, generating a palpable sense of something special about to happen far removed from the privations of the weather!

As with some of its previous concerts, the Band on this occasion offered an enticing mixture of standard, regularly-presented repertoire and an intriguing transcription for orchestra of a chamber work, in this case a seldom-performed string quartet by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’d head the first of the string quartets via a recording, but hadn’t “graduated” to the second – and the Band’s heartfelt musical presentation of the work underlined my wonderment at its relative neglect (but more of that later).

Though the other two works were better-known, neither could be said to be regularly-programmed items at orchestral concerts, in particular the Haydn Symphony, which tends to be a work more talked about than played, even if I have from memory seen at least one other performance, and one which, as here, added the “theatricality” of the players departing one-by-one during the last movement – which is the whole “point” of the piece, of course!

First to be performed was the Hindemith work, the Trauermusik (in English, “Funeral Music” or “Mourning Music”), a piece for viola and string orchestra, written at short notice by the composer in a single day (21st January 1936) as a tribute to King George V of England, who had died the previous evening. Hindemith, who was himself a violist, was in England for the purpose of performing the English premiere of his Viola Concerto, Der Schwanendreher, but when the concert was cancelled because of the King’s death, was asked if he would in its place write a short commemorative piece instead.  Hindemith completed the work in just six hours that day, and with the string players from the same orchestra and conductor (the BBC Symphony and Adrian Boult) was the soloist in a live broadcast of Trauermusik that same evening – a premiere of a different kind!

The presentation throughout the whole concert was nothing if not theatrical, as if “leading on” from the worlds-within-worlds contrast between the rawness of the elements without and the warmth and geniality within the venue at the start; with atmospheric lighting at the performance’s beginning, adding focus to the welcome in Te Reo given us by one of the players, and indicating something of the solemnity of the music’s occasion. Conductor Doug Harvey got a warm, rich sound from his players at the music’s outset, one which brought out a homogeneity of solemn feeling while keeping the individual lines clear. I thought the lower and deeper of the viola soloist’s lines were delivered more warmly and securely, his intonation showing some strain here and there as his line rose, though the accompanying figures gave him plenty of unfailing support. This music always surprises me by its brevity, its sense of “not a note wasted” seeming to defy normal time in a trance-like manner, and awaken us from the spell at the end most unexpectedly – here, the ensemble’s playing readily took us to those realms, and evoked a moment in time, a quiet frisson of valediction.

We are a bit “spoiled” for the “first fifty” Haydn Symphonies in Wellington at present in relative terms, most recently with this performance of No. 45, and the ensemble Camerata gradually working through the earliest essays by the composer in this form, hopefully about to take on No.14 at an as yet undisclosed date! I was sure I’d seen a performance of the “Farewell” elsewhere here in Wellington over the last dozen or so years, but the Middle C search engine (since 2008) has come up empty-handed! Whatever the case this performance made up in spadefuls for the omission with both interpretative focus and performance commitment from the Band, the occasional roughness around the music’s edges mattering not a whit amid the excitement, humour and gracefulness of the playing overall.

At the beginning the vigorous driving rhythms sharply underlined the music’s dynamic contrasts, with horns and winds colouring the textures most evocatively, setting the initial urgency against the grace and good humour of the second subject group. Throughout, the musicians did their best to “fill out” the hall’s somewhat dry ambiences and impart some bloom to the sounds. The second movement tempo adroitly caught the music’s grace and gentle humour, the winds’ entries particularly “pointed” following the gently “covered” tones of the strings. I enjoyed the floated string lines over the deftly “etched-in” accompaniments at the beginning of the music’s middle section, as well as the horns’ beautifully-voiced call in thirds at another point, the enchantment of it all coming from the musicians seeming to really “care” about making their notes speak to us.

The rapid tempo for the minuet took me by surprise, but conductor Harvey and his players made it work, uproariously sounding the tutti sections in contrast to the “Jack, be nimble” feetwork of the surrounding sequences. By the time the horns had gotten to introduce the Trio, I was grooving along with the music most happily, and chortling, albeit unobtrusively, at the music’s “throwaway” ending!

The fourth movement’s allegro wasn’t rushed off its feet, here, but allowed some girth, while still able to scintillate in the quick-moving passages, the dynamics strongly-focused with terrific ensemble-playing. At the opening’s reprise,  the horns and winds sounded out splendidly, holding their lines amid the growing agitations, leading up to the dramatic luftpause. The adagio which followed featured the gradual exit of all the players (and the conductor), and a “thinning-out” of the orchestral textures, finally leaving but two of the first chair violinists, who, sweetly and demurely, finished the work.

Haydn diplomatically devised this composition “scheme” in response to his musicians’ pleas for the composer to intercede with their employer, Prince Esterhazy, to grant them a “break” after a protracted stay at the Prince’s summer palace in the country, a day’s journey away from their families in another town. Apparently the message was understood by the Prince, as the entire court returned to the town the day after the symphony’s performance! It was all beautifully done, with  straight faces from the players and wry amusement amongst the audience!

However, the theatricality of all of this was nothing compared with what awaited us throughout the concert’s second half. Vaughan Williams wrote two string quartets, the second of which dates from the years 1942-44, over thirty years after the earlier work was completed. Consequently the two quartets are literally worlds apart, the Second containing elements relating to both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were composed at around the same period. The first three movements owe more to the post-war Sixth Symphony (though the slow movement touches on the earlier Symphony in places), whereas the finale appears to revisit the relative peace and serenity of the earlier(wartime) Fifth Symphony. It’s a work whose neglect in the chamber music repertoire is difficult to understand – and the Capital Band’s transcription of the work for string orchestra splendidly conveys the music’s character in all of its aspects

A feature of the work is the prominent writing for the viola, fruit of the composer’s friendship with a young violist, Jean Stewart, whose quartet, the Menges Quartet, gave the premiere performance of the work in 1944. The first movement sounds very VW, with terrific tension and conflict between upper and lower voices,  the figurations in each register obsessively “at odds” with each other, culminating in a ferocious tremolando outburst which exhausts the combatative instincts of the voices, and imposes a semblance of order upon their interaction, presided over by the viola, again, more reliable in the instrument’s lower register.

Solo strings began the slow movement, a lovely, intimate effect which continued up to the wider-spanned choral-like writing, when the whole ensemble joined in, the contrasting passages between solo strings and larger ensemble recalling similar moments in the composer’s “Thomas Tallis Fantasia”. I found a further extended passage for the quartet alone very moving, the violins especially lovely, the viola and ‘cello properly supportive.

The Scherzo returned us to the eerie, more nightmare-like quality of the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo. The “haunted flight” of the rapid figurations was readily conveyed by the string body, although again, the viola soloist struggled with his intonation in places. And then, as if by magic, the music “found” a different voice for the work’s finale, the ensemble conjuring up wave upon wave of positive emotion and banishing the darkness – I thought the playing of the more “restrained” lines incredibly moving, here, readily conveying to us the sense of a journey undertaken from darkness into light.

Readers of this review who were at the concert may be wondering why I’ve not until now mentioned the conductor Doug Harvey’s “dramatized” readings of several poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed between the quartet’s movements. Conscious as I am of the amount of sheer hard work that must have gone into memorising the words and sentiments of these poems and their “enactment”, I simply didn’t feel justice was done to them by Harvey choosing to overtly “dramatize” the narratives with extended movements and marked changes of voice-level for dramatic effect which resulted in a lot of the words losing their clarity and coherence. Someone I didn’t know who was sitting beside me confirmed afterwards that she too had struggled to make out many of the words for exactly the same reasons. Spoken words need clarity and focus in performance as strongly as music does; and I thought the clarity and focus of enunciation and meaning that was lacking in Harvey’s somewhat over-wrought verbal deliveries and depictions, were qualities that he and his musicians readily brought to the music throughout the concert, resulting in that side of things being a resounding success!

Amalia Hall splendidly embodies Virtuoso Violin with Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:
Virtuoso Violin

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No.1 “Militaire”
Nicoló Paganini Violin Concerto No. 2 “La Campanella”
Franz Liszt Mazeppa
Franz Liszt Les Prêludes

Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 12 June, 2021

Marc Taddei introduced the concert with a few words of explanation. This programme reflected a significant change in music history, the dawn of a new era, the shift from concerts performed in salons in aristocratic palaces to concerts performed by widely celebrated virtuosos in concert halls to large audiences. It also reflected the changes in instruments, violins with longer necks and strings and pianos with stronger frames that could produce sounds that could fill the larger venues. It was about the rise of the artist as a hero, a celebrity, not a mere servant of some nobleman, like Haydn, who was in the house of Eszterházy, or Mozart, in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg. This change called for a large orchestra with a full complement of brass, winds and percussion. It is the story of the rise of the virtuoso. It was innovative and interesting programming, as we are now used to from Mark Taddei.

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No.1 “Militaire”

This was an orchestral arrangement by Glazunov of one of Chopin’s most popular works. It was part of a suite of arrangements of four pieces he called Chopiniana, written 1892-93. The work was subsequently choreographed by Mikhail Fokine 1907 and was taken to Paris under the umbrella of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe season in 1909 and was renamed “Les Sylphides”. I am sure that as ballet music it works well, but the subtlety of Chopin, which was one of his hallmarks as a composer, was inevitably lost. As a work for a large orchestra it is very different from the original piano version, with too much brass, too much bombast. The noted pianist, Anton Rubinstein described this piece as the symbol of Polish glory. Whatever Chopin intended, Glazunov turned the orchestral version into something triumphal.

Nicoló Paganini Violin Concerto No. 2 “La Campanella”

Amalia Hall (soloist)

Hearing the Paganini Concerto was a once in a lifetime opportunity. In many years of concert going I don’t recall ever hearing it played live. It is undoubtedly a showy vehicle for a violin virtuoso without the substance of the great concertos of the repertoire, but it was written in a different age with different expectations. Above all, it was written by Paganini, the first international celebrity, a star, to show off his amazing skills as a violinist, and perhaps to put his rivals, other great violinists of his age, in their places. This concerto was born in the age of Rossini that soon yielded to more profound composers, Weber, Wagner, and Verdi. The work starts with an orchestral tutti which announces the main themes to follow, builds up an expectation and then lets the soloist take over like a great tenor with his signature aria. It is very vocal writing, with the custom of the earlier generation of singers and violinists to elaborate and ornament the melodies. Amalia Hall asserted her mastery from the very moment of her entry. Her fiddle sang with a penetrating beautiful tone, the melodic line flowed gracefully. She sailed over the great technical challenges that Paganini placed in the concerto to discourage the faint-hearted. Her phrasing was beautiful, clear, her tone dominating, but singing. Her cadenza established that she was a master of her instrument.

The second movement started with the horns, the hunter lurking off stage, birds chirping until the violin took over with an ever so beautiful melody, like a tenor coming in, singing a soulful serenade. Amalia Hall played this with freedom, as if playing this aria for every individual member of her large audience. And then La Campanalla, like a sudden burst of light, the piece de resistance that we were waiting for, joyful, playful, such an irresistible captivating tune that Liszt transcribed it and embellished it for the piano, one of his most popular studies. Paganini used this theme to demonstrate all the tricks that he could show off on the violin, double stops, harmonics, spiccatos, left hand pizzicatos. It is a great challenge for the soloist, and a credit to Amalia Hall that she took it all in her stride. The audience responded at the end of each movement by the now unusual, but very appropriate applause, and a tumultuous ovation followed at the end of the concerto. Amalia Hall rewarded the audience with a solo for violin, Orange Blossom, an American barn music theme, all great fun.

Franz Liszt:  Mazeppa
                         Les Prêludes

These two symphonic poems presented huge challenges for the orchestra. Tone poems were an innovation in Liszt’s time. They are, unlike symphonic movements, not constrained by traditional musical forms. They set out to evoke in the minds of listeners specific scenes, moods, images, stories.

Mazeppa was inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem of the story of Ivan Mazeppa, who seduced a Polish noblewoman. As punishment he was tied naked to a wild horse that carted him to Ukraine. There he was released by the Cossacks, who made him a hetman, a leader. Strings suggest a wild gallop, which is transformed and distorted with six strokes of the timpani that evoke the fall of the rider. Strings, horns and bassoon express astonishment at the injured man who is then raised, as depicted by the Allegro Marziale on the trumpets. The constantly recurring motif announced by the massed brass suggests a spirit not easily overcome. The final theme signifies the return of the hero and his end in glory.

Les Prêludes is Liszt’s interpretation of Lamartine’s poem, though it was originally conceived as an overture to settings of four poems by Joseph Autran for choruses. It is the earliest example of an orchestral work that was performed as a “symphonic poem”. The purists, believing in absolute music, found music that tried to describe anything other than music a contradiction in terms. Yet it became the most popular of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems. It uses a large orchestra and evokes a wide range of sounds. It is a challenge to blend these themes and sounds for an orchestra. Orchestra Wellington, with its part-time structure may not always rise to the height of the great orchestras that one can hear on recordings, but it was a brave attempt by them to showcase these key works in the development of romanticism in music.

It was a fine, enjoyable concert. Well done Orchestra Wellington!




New Zealand String Quartet at Lower Hutt – three views of Beethoven

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets for the Ages

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No.4
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Op.131

The New Zealand String Quartet –
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 3rd June, 2021

I remember reading an interview many years ago with one of the great Beethoven interpreters of recent tines, Alfred Brendel, and warming to him all the more when he responded to a question regarding his “hobbies” by listing one of them as “collecting unintentional humour”. Brendel would doubtless have relished the unexpected “cyber-glitches” experienced by violinist Helene Pohl and ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relating to their respective electronic page-turners’ charmingly (and perhaps appropriately connubial) interaction, just before the music got under way, Helene remarking of Rolf’s device at one point, “His machine keeps turning MY pages!”

Of course there was no ice needing to be broken, no frigid formality here –  the NZSQ’s characteristic “instant engagement” with whatever music the group performs invariably does the trick with audiences in a flash – nevertheless the momentary malfunctionings and the ensuing banter meant that we were this time even more-than-usually “primed” for enjoyment and wide-eared appreciation of what we were about to hear. And, such was the music’s expressive capacity and the players’ involvement with the sounds and their interaction, we were able to truly savour Rolf Gjelsten’s post-performance comments regarding Op.18 No. 4 as a satisfying retrospective of the music, the players having borne out to a tee his references to things such as Josef Haydn’s influence, and the younger composer’s avowed determination to match, if not outdo his great mentor’s achievement in this form.

Being in C minor, a key marking a significantly expressive world of feeling for Beethoven, the Op.18 No.4’s dark opening demeanour made its mark, while being cross-currented with mellowness in places, some especially lovely duetting between first and second violins a delight, and a graceful return to the opening throwing the darker-browed moments into bolder relief. I loved the expectation engendered by the playing of the development, the emotions unerringly terraced with crescendos of feeling, the ‘cello enjoying the same thematic material as the two violins in the exposition, the violin responding with a minor-key version of the same (“Anything you can do, etc…”), before a stepwise progression of the themes brought us to the recapitulation with great theatricality and presence, whose drama of “working out” the material left us humming at the end.

Unusually for the time, a scherzo-like allegretto followed, the daintiness of the fugato entries countenanced by the gruffness of the cello’s entries, the two “modes” playfully snapping at one another’s heels during the exposition. How intently the players made us listen to the development with its hushed, tongue-in-cheek gestures, pinning our ears back with the occasional sforzando and delighting us with moments of rustic gallantry augmenting the delicacies, the interactions having a quality here of such spontaneous enjoyment as giving an almost improvisatory feeling to the working-out.

There followed an amazing third movement! – a Menuetto almost to be “imagined” rather than realised, the chromatic writing enabling the music to appear to change from darkness to light and back to darkness almost within the space of a phrase, Beethoven drawing from Haydn’s example with fanciful exploratory impulses. The players wafted the Trio’s roulade-like figures skywards like flights of ecstasy, making the Menuetto’s return all the more “spooked”-sounding for its urgencies. The finale impishly suggested a minor-key version of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio at the outset, but what most tickled the ear was the “give-and-take” treatment of the flowing contrasting theme’s voicing, and then the rapid-fire repeated-note versions of the opening, with first and second violins “juggling” the same theme to delightful effect. And the prestissimo ending here set high spirits against insouciant humour with real aplomb – splendid!

It was a pleasure to listen to Rolf (and, later in the concert, to Helene Pohl), talk about music the players obviously know so well and convey so much affinity with, Rolf placing the Op.18 work we had just listened to in the context of Beethoven’s three “periods” as a composer, and suggesting that here, in effect, would be three different people represented by the evening’s music – firstly the young, thrusting Beethoven, conscious of his influences and wanting to match and even surpass them in his own music, followed by a period during which he  grappled with debilitating deafness, striving to counter and overcome fate, hence the “heroic” aspect of works like the Fifth Symphony and the “Emperor” Concerto, one of which was the Op.74 “Harp” Quartet. Rolf indicated that Helene would later introduce the great Op.131 Quartet, one of those handful of works in which Beethoven seemed almost to transcend human existence in the creative sphere.

Innovative though certain aspects of the Op.18 quartets were, Beethoven’s “usual” quartet of string players (led by the wondrously-named Ignaz Schuppanzigh) seemed by all accounts equal to any technical difficulty in performance, though it was a different story with the later quartets, Schuppanzigh telling the composer that Op.59 (Razumovsky) and Op.74 (Harp) were “too unusual and challenging” to be accepted by the public. And, of course, Schuppanzigh was to dismiss the late quartets as impossible to play at first, eliciting the composer’s famously scathing remark concerning the former’s “miserable violin” (Schuppanzigh and his quartet subsequently “knuckled down” and played them anyway, revolutionising chamber music performing practice in the process, his quartet’s subscription concerts the first to be devoted entirely to instrumental music, and to focus on a single genre in a concert series).

Even to today’s sensibilities, the Poco Adagio  beginning of the Op.74 quartet seems to have an extraordinary and unpredictable expressive reach, the material inhabiting territories whose vistas keep their mystery intact through two sudden separate sforzando chords, as if saying to us “Are you listening?”. Then, with the allegro, the fully-formed composer comes into the light like a force of nature! – here, some remarkably flexible playing took us to the distinctive repeated-note motif that closed the exposition (the repeat eagerly plunging us back to the allegro’s beginning), before entering into new and unnerving realms – where were we going? Those seemingly-spontaneously-wrought modulations, stretching the allegro theme almost to breaking-point brought about a pizzicato-to-arco crescendo in which the players wrought expectations almost to fever-pitch – so exciting! The recapitulation seemed here to give us a kind of looking-glass view of the way we’d come, taking us back to the repeated-note motif, but then, amazingly, drifting into a hitherto unexplored state of consciousness, the players timing it all so deliciously, allowing the impulses to swell and grow before igniting as scurrying violin figures, excitable pizzicati and echoing figurations, eventually bursting out with the properly-conclusive repeated-note motif proclaiming the music’s true destination in (dare one say) almost orgasmic fashion, interactive and exhilarating!

Some beautiful violin-playing began the Adagio ma non troppo, with similarly-voiced support from the others, a hymn-like outpouring whose heartfelt warmth seemed to suddenly fall away and expose a loneliness within, a mood-shift Beethoven seemed to consider deeply, then turn into some kind of ritual, with each instrument adding its warmth and resonance, until, again, the depths were uncovered and we were made to feel the extent of the darkness – enthralling, sotto voce playing, here, then beautiful duetting between the violins, rich tones leavened by birdsong, and a return to the tragic theme, as if the composer was audibly “wrestling” with it all – such a “layered” outpouring of emotion, here so movingly felt and enacted.

From deep feeling to blood-pulsating activity! – the scherzo’s Presto burst out of the blocks, racing at what seemed like top speed, the sounds incredibly energised and varied in dynamic range! And what an explosive Trio section! – a jumble of conflicting emotions caught up in a vortex of ceaseless movement! The repeat asked for more and got it, as wildly and frenetically as before! I loved the fantastical, Berlioz-like arrivals at the sustained open-string-sounding note just before the scherzo’s returnings, the final reprise a ghostly, and fantastical experience, the muted tones as unnerving as the previously impetuous trajectories of the music had been.  From the mutterings grew up a carefree-sounding three-note figure strung together in a step-wise way, the seemingly-innocent chant-like theme giving rise to worlds of kaleidoscopic delight in the variations which made up the work’s finale, the ensemble bringing it all to life – a canonic-like echo-game, a viola-led serenade (the instrument most beautifully allowed to sing in its upper register) and a burst of running activity punctuated with angular off-beats, leading to a soulful, almost hymn-like  a section which gave way to a jolly jot-trot, one during which one could see and feel the players’ involvement with the fun of the accompaniments as much as with the rallying-call of the melody!

But then, what a feat of imagination was the composer’s fusion of varied impulse which led to the work’s conclusion – the repeated cello notes pulsating the music’s life-lines beneath the sotto voce voices of the other instruments, the blood-flow maintained by other voices as the excitement intensified, the opening three-note figure energised and the pulsations swelling (we were all on the edges of our mind-seats by this time!), until the “running” variation burst upon us once again, carrying all before it in triumph, and concluding with a droll “that’s that!” gesture at the end!

What it was about this particular quartet and its performance that has given rise to my writing all of the above, I don’t fully understand! – except that I had heard the NZSQ  players “unlock” the music with such heartfelt commitment as to freshly awaken for me the delight of unlooked-for rediscovery, a realisation that this work wasn’t merely a “prelude” to greater achievements in the genre by its composer, but a universe in itself, a “world in a grain of sand”. I briefly and unexpectedly spoke with Rolf Gjelsten in the foyer during the interval, but wouldn’t have made much sense to him in my somewhat dazed state following such a performance! And still we had, waiting for us in the concert’s second half, Op. 131!

Having fallen under the spell of Op.74, I simply couldn’t escape similar immersion in this later work,  reputedly the composer’s favourite of all of his string quartets. Helene Pohl talked with us not only about the uniqueness of the world inhabited by these late works, but also about Beethoven’s fascination with and study of Jewish themes at this time, illustrating the influences on this particular quartet with some examples from Kol Nidrei (a traditional Jewish declaration of “cleansing” before prayer), citing and illustrating their use by Beethoven in the Quartet, particularly in the sixth movement. What struck me anew at the music’s beginning was the indescribable sadness of the opening theme, played on the solo violin and continued in fugal form by all of the voices, taking the listener into realms of wonderment, everything further intensified by the instruments’ different timbres, each crescendo of intensity exquisitely realised. I was put in mind in places, also, of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most “stricken”, the players adding breadth of expression to the music’s depth, “leaning” almost pathetically into each chord at the end and allowing the resonances their full countenance….

Out of the gloom a number of impulses lit up, gently dancing, the 6/8 rhythm as spontaneously playful and angular as those similarly-wrought gestures in the composer’s Op.111 Piano Sonata’s Arietta – the brief allegro moderato movement, filled with improvisatory musings and flourishes seemed to proclaim something new and unchartered was afoot, the theme’s serenity and full-throatedness attesting to Beethoven’s unswerving focus and determination to put across “what the spirit told him”, the gentle march-like rhythms engaging violin and cello, then viola and cello, and finally all the instruments in a swinging unison, the “improvisatory” nature of it all captured both compositionally and interpretatively by the players, to enchanting effect. Here were the duetting lower strings daring one another to continue, the violins in ecstasy together, with their flights of fancy, and we in the audience spellbound throughout it all!

Too rich to fully document, though too significant to let pass, the remaining variations seemed to generate themselves from what had gone before in wholly alchemic ways, the rapt textures (again to my ears anticipating Tchaikovsky’s, and Borodin’s sound-worlds) giving way to a ritualised, chant-like treatment energised by the cello with a brusque figure that increasingly impinged, goading the first violin into a reply, while the volatile Allegretto stretched the material every which way, before withdrawing into enigmatic, though momentary, silence….

Immediately, the Presto was upon us, a repeated two-note figure tumbling through the ensemble and tossed backwards and forwards like a slippery ball – the ensemble had great fun with the pizzicato exchanges, which intensified with each repetition, the players’ control allowing them a real sense of abandonment, creating a kind of illusion of a capricious spirit directing the music to speak, exuberance jumbled up with mystery, the ponticello playing near the end properly sending the shivers up one’s spine! What a dramatic switch, then, to the Adagio quasi un poco andante, brief, but abyss-like in its potential for grief and despair! – and how unequivocally the succeeding  Allegro turned the focus around, away from despair to determination, the music “taking arms against a sea of troubles” with the utmost vehemence, the players here viscerally conveying the music’s conflict, courting the occasional tenderly-consoling sequence, but then building up further heads of steam. And the ending (a scalp-tingling “tierce de picardie”, or major-key ending to a piece in a minor key) featured emphatic C#MAJOR chords! – the perfect rebuff to the “sea of troubles!”

I walked out in a daze, afterwards – fortunately, my car seemed to know the way home that evening!