An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 


By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.


The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.

 

“Packed (and) buzzing” audience acclaim Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
The 50th Anniversary Concert

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture Op.96
GARETH FARR Terra Incognita (2008)
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets  Op.32

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

The Alan Gibbs Centre was packed to the gills, and buzzing with celebratory vibes, for this ambitious concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WCO. The stage as well was crowded and festive, with past members of the Orchestra making a return to its ranks for this gala programme. In keeping with the mood and the occasion, the programme opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (Op. 96). Written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, this party of a piece contains no hint of the shadows and ironies that mark the composer’s more contemplative works – likely because he was given no time to contemplate it: the overture was commissioned at the last minute by the Bolshoi Theatre and had to be ready in three days, with couriers whisking each freshly-completed page off to the theatre to be copied for parts.  The piece opens with an arresting fanfare whose grandeur was slightly blunted by the fact that two of the WCO’s brass players had had to be replaced that very morning due to untimely Covid infections. Here and elsewhere, the brass section struggled heroically on, but with a certain lack of cohesion that reflected the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble. Elsewhere, the effects of Covid (which disrupted the personnel, rehearsal schedule, and timing of the concert itself) were felt more occasionally, with the most supple and resilient ensemble playing coming from the woodwinds.  Rachel Hyde’s crisp, clear conducting was a pleasure to watch, and yielded its best results in the pizzicato section of the work, where a crackling energy and rhythm drove the music forward.

Next up was Gareth Farr’s Terra Incognita (2008), written after a sojourn in Antarctica. Its libretto, by Paul Horan, incorporates excerpts from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott and Frank Debenham (a scientist with Scott’s expedition), as well as from Tennyson’s Ulysses (Scott’s favourite poem, apparently) and Horan’s own “poetic” reflections on the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf. The mood thus runs the gamut from awestruck (“This earth was never ours”) to heroic (“Come, my friends….smite/The sounding furrows”) to elegiac (“Goodbye Larsen B”), as the ice first dwarfs, then kills men, only to be ultimately killed by them. Choristers made up from many Wellington choirs, including The Glamaphones, Cantoris, Nota Bene, Orpheus and others, singing in long static phrases evoked a frozen landscape and acted as a kind of Greek chorus of the “transient strangers” referenced by Debenham, “stunned and stunted” by the mystique of the ice. The foreground characters – Scott, Debenham, and the poems’ lyric speakers – were voiced by Samuel McKeever in a deep, imposing bass.  The flat acoustics of the Gibbs Center, especially when filled with people bundled up in winter layers, did the singers no favours, alas. Nonetheless McKeever’s “Great God! This is an awful place” in the sixth movement – drawn from Scott’s diary – penetrated to the back of the hall, a grim highlight of the sung text.

The piece followed the overall form of a song cycle, without pauses between movements, the textures in the orchestra reflecting and co-creating the mood of each text. A hushed opening movement, “This earth was never ours,” began with glass chimes over tremulous (and slightly out of tune) pianissimo strings, a stylised evocation of cold and cracking ice, gradually joined by the woodwinds and then by the choir on its long, “frozen” chords. This gave way to the contrasting second movement, “Come, my friends,” in which the heroic words of Ulysses, sung by McKeever, were chased about by striving, strenuously rhythmic accompaniment from the orchestra, led by the strings. This in turn yielded to another “frozen” choral movement, “I never knew you” (to an original text by Horan), followed by a very cinematic setting of text from Scott’s diary, “Night light,” which McKeever managed to make genuinely songlike. The fifth movement, “Quiet land,” was heralded (counterintuitively) by a snare drum, with the woodwinds and percussion underpinning a restless setting of Debenham’s text (“Ever moving…ceaselessly circling”), joined by the strings and choir at its climax (“And above all, the dream is here”). A slow, foreboding sixth movement (“Eternal Silence”) juxtaposed Scott’s anguished words with a hushed but strenuous discord in the orchestra and choir, produced by asking each chorister to sing their highest comfortable note. If the mood here recalled Penderecki’s famous Threnody, the seventh and final movement, “Goodbye Larsen B” – elegiac in tone, with lush harmonies in the orchestra – was closer to Górecki. The circular structure that often distinguishes Farr’s works was evident here only in the return of the glass chimes, which seemed slightly incongruous given the narrative of the work, documenting the destruction of the icy wilderness they had evoked at the start. McKeever’s diction, excellent throughout, made it impossible to hide from the rather pedestrian character of the lyrics in this final song. His heroic performance was warmly applauded.

After an intermission, players and audience returned for Holst’s Planets. Covid notwithstanding, the number of musicians onstage amply bore out this work’s generic label, “Suite for Large Orchestra.”  As Holst fans know, the piece’s seven movements proceed in astrological rather than astronomical order: Mars first, then Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (Earth doesn’t get a look-in, but was, one supposes, indirectly represented by Farr’s Terra Incognita in the first half.) “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a regulation banger in 5/4 time, was beautifully shaped by Rachel Hyde’s eloquent conducting and went with a swing. In contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” sounded initially uncertain, with some hesitant entrances and wobbly tuning. As sometimes happens, a collective loss of confidence seemed to set in, infecting each soloist in turn. On the other hand, in tutti passages, especially when playing driving rhythms or conveying a sense of sweeping passion, the orchestra made a magnificently lustrous sound. One might say that they felt more at home in war than in peace….a tempting metaphor for human nature.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” featured some lovely woodwind duets and an ethereal “celesta” contribution from the always excellent Heather Easting on an electric keyboard which doubled as the (sadly inaudible against a full orchestra playing ffff) “organ” later on. These were the moments where the triple subdivision of the beat in this movement felt most comfortable; elsewhere, the players could perhaps have used more help in navigating it. The problem of keeping stringed instruments in tune in an increasingly warm and humid hall also asserted itself here; a pause between movements to re-tune didn’t seem to help much.  However, the alternately rollicking and majestic “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its maestoso middle section featuring the famous tune later adapted into “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” went with a bang, followed by the colder and more forbidding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” with its relentless “tick-tock” theme and (slightly unsteady) plodding brass. “Uranus, the Magician” is built on a tension between the rather portentous four-note theme in the brass (later picked up by other instruments) and the mischievous, stomping dance led by a trio of bassoons. It feels rather like a circus parade until the sudden drop in tempo and dynamic fatally interrupts it, preparing the ground for the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”  Some lovely playing from the woodwinds opened this disorienting, genuinely mystical movement, which closed on a hidden chorus of treble voices (supplied by the sopranos and altos of the choir seen earlier in Terra Incognita). 

In a nice touch from a historical perspective, the chorus was conducted by Robert Oliver, not only a veteran singer and choral conductor himself but also the inaugural conductor (1972-74) of the WCO itself.  This 50th anniversary concert thus concluded, fittingly, with two conductors, bookends as it were to the orchestra’s leadership from its earliest beginnings to the present.  This poetic conclusion was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which rose to its feet to applaud the orchestra as much for its performance of this epic programme as for its half-century of service to the Wellington music scene. A good time having been had by all, it remained only to secure a cup of tea and congratulate the performers.  Felicitations to the WCO on its persistence through five decades of music and two years of Covid to bring this programme to us all.

 

From the Bush to the Ballroom: the NZSQ Plays Music from Aotearoa and Central Europe

The New Zealand String Quartet

2021 National Tour –  Programme 1

HAYDN – String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”
FARR –  Te Kōanga
LIGETI –  String Quartet No. 1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
DVORAK –  String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51

The Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Friday, 12 November 2021

This concert was billed as a “Premium Concert Experience,” the kind of language that sets the teeth of a crusty old pedant like me somewhat on edge. It refers in this instance to a format involving tables instead of serried rows of chairs, with drinks and canapés served at the interval, a concept that also struck me initially as rather naff.  However, I ended up enjoying it thoroughly, partly because it was well done (the hall did not smell like a restaurant, the drinks and canapés were modest and discreetly served, and I didn’t hear anyone slurping during the music!), and partly because the elegant interior of the Public Trust Hall lends itself quite nicely to this atmosphere of discreet bourgeois luxury. The Haydn quartet that opened the programme completed the illusion of being, perhaps, a relatively anonymous guest at the Esterházy court enjoying the fruits of their musical patronage.  (In actual fact we were enjoying the fruits of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust’s patronage — the Trust has supported the Quartet for two decades as of this year — and the strong Austro-Hungarian orientation of the music programmed for this national tour of the NZSQ pays homage to Frederick Turnovsky’s Central European roots, with Czech composers especially featured.)  To my surprise, it was also easier to focus on the music while sitting comfortably at a table rather than in a row of seats; the sightlines were better, and one felt less like a sardine and more like a patron of the arts.  In short: five stars, would attend a “premium concert experience” again.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the music itself was exquisite. It is always a huge pleasure to watch the NZSQ perform; they are so attentive to one another, communicating through their body language both the mood of the music and the relationships within it.  The Haydn “Sunrise” quartet comes by its name honestly, opening with a warm, sustained B-flat major chord in the three lower voices from which the first violin takes off on a series of upward runs that immediately evoke the rising sun. The motif returns throughout the movement (occasionally inverted, sometimes in a minor key suggesting clouds over the sun) and gets passed around from instrument to instrument, while in between the four lines chase each other around in semiquavers that variously evoke running water, scurrying animals, chattering birds, etc. Much opportunity here to enjoy both the individual voices of the Quartet’s four excellent members and the various dialogues forming and dissolving between players, a texture the NZSQ performs brilliantly.  

This “Allegro con spirito” nature study was succeeded by a chorale-like Adagio that largely tethered the lower voices together in a chordal texture while the first violin again soared above in rippling arabesques — the Hungarian Count von Erdődy to whom the Op. 76 quartets are dedicated must have had a first violinist he enjoyed listening to.  The rising semitones from the first movement carried through the second and into the third, a robust and jolly Menuetto that transported the hearer straight to an Eastern European tavern and the very thick of a peasant dance. Strongly rhythmic, as if to evoke stomping feet, the Menuetto also features octave unisons in the violins over a bass drone in the cello that conjured bagpipes in our midst.  One often hears the expression “not a dry eye in the house,” but in this case I think there was not a wet eye in the house; the mirth and jollity of this movement was too contagious. A somewhat more aristocratic-feeling folk dance — say, a ballroom adaptation — formed the atmosphere of the Finale, with the four instruments again passing around fragments of the main theme, coalescing into brief and various alliances without sticking out from the collective.  An accelerating and intensifying coda brought things to a satisfying conclusion and left the audience in no doubt about when to applaud.

If the Haydn quartet transported us by turns to a meadow, a church, a tavern, and a ballroom, Gareth Farr’s 2017 work Te Kōanga took us to the Marlborough Sounds of the composer’s holidays as a teenager, when — according to the Quartet’s programme notes — he heard, and noted down, the song of a particular tui whose voice is immortalised in the piece’s opening bars. Rather than a stylized Classical impression of avian dawn choruses, then, Te Kōanga (“spring” or “planting season” in te reo Māori) offered direct transcriptions of native birdsong — specifically, two tuis and a weka — which gradually gathered into a rich, rhythmic texture in the top three voices while the cello provided a jazzy pizzicato bass line underneath.  The piece, commissioned as a memorial to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons by his family, is written to evoke, and celebrate, Lyons’ passion for the natural world, and specifically the wild outdoor spaces around Wellington. It was built around three main textures: a hushed, tremulous evocation of the native bush filled with birdsong; angular, airy percussive sections with (what the program called) “powerful plucks and snaps on the strings”; and more solid arco sections that often featured unisons diverging into Shostakovich-like dissonant harmonies. We visited each of these terrains several times, in various permutations, before vanishing once again into hushed space as the bird songs quieted.

It was back to Hungary for the last piece before the interval: György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “Métamorphoses nocturnes.”  Helene Pohl, in her introductory comments, said the Quartet hear strong echoes of late Beethoven in the work, as well as the obvious influence of Bartók (whose works, however, Ligeti knew only insofar as they were approved for performance by the Stalinist government still in place when he was writing his first quartet; the works of other, more frankly avant-garde composers, such as Alban Berg, could not be heard at all, though Ligeti owned a score of Berg’s Lyric Suite and professed it as an influence on this work).  

If images of the natural world had provided the link from Haydn to Farr, the opening of the Ligeti hearkened back to Haydn via the motif of rising semitones. Here, however, far from the warmth of Haydn’s sunrise, chromatic scales — rising from a low C, beginning in the viola and gradually trickling into the cello and second violin — sounded spooky and, well, more Transylvanian (the composer was born in Transylvania in 1923) than plain old sylvanian. I found myself feeling glad that the scales were at least going up rather than down. From here, the first violin introduces the motif that Ligeti identified as the “concept” which “metamorphoses” rather than receiving conventional variations over the course of the piece, which is written as a single movement although distinct “sub-movements” are marked within it.  The texture ranged from delicate tremolo sections over melancholy harmonies to hyperactive fortissimo outbursts.  Though the overall effect was unconventional, formal conventions were not disregarded; the opening “Allegro grazioso” (with its unsettling rising scales) performed the traditional function of introducing the material to be developed; other sections recognizably included standard exercises such as a march, a waltz, a mournful adagio, etc. — but all knocked slightly askew.  

 

I thought the NZSQ played this superbly, with considerable humor, as well as energy and passion.  Both solo and ensemble playing were flawless. The music seemed to grow out of them more organically than the preceding two pieces (although I had no complaints about the preceding two pieces). From where I was sitting I happened to have a better-than-usual view of the inner voices, Monique Lapins on second violin and Gillian Ansell on viola; it was such a pleasure to watch them knit their lines together, as they were frequently called upon to do. All four players were fully involved in the music and obviously hearing and communicating with all three of their respective colleagues (at least, I am extrapolating in regard to Rolf Gjelsten, whose cello sounded terrific but of whom, from my vantage point, only a tidy haircut could be seen). Sometimes their playing and body language communicated deep empathy; sometimes, mutual hilarity (my notes single out “the bits where everyone is playing glissando and making each other laugh”: glissando was much to the fore, appearing in pizzicato and harmonic as well as arco sections). The “Tempo di Valse” section sounded irresistibly like a couple of Chaplinesque drunks trying to walk home (but was followed immediately by a ringing, urgent “subito prestissimo” lest we get too comfortable in our amusement). Perhaps under the influence of the “nature study” theme introduced by Haydn and Farr, I heard the alternations between prestissimo and allegro “giovale” in the last quarter of the piece as a tale revolving around angry bees; perhaps, those unsuccessfully hunted by Winnie-the-Pooh (who, under the name Micimackó, had been a beloved part of Hungarian children’s culture since 1935, so why not?).  My irreverence was, however, again stopped short by the sorrowful concluding Lento, tapering into silence (another aspect of performance at which the NZSQ excels: holding a silence for a decent length of time before relaxing for applause.)

This was a high note on which to adjourn for the interval (during which I was amused to be served hors d’oeuvres by shining lights of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, whose last concert I had recently reviewed).  On the programme for the second half was just one work, Dvořák’s  Tenth Quartet. This began tentatively but soon warmed up into the luscious and catchy folk-derived melodies for which Dvořák is known. Here as in the fourth movement of the opening Haydn, the folk dances felt less earthy than stylized; not so much an invitation to dance as an invitation to think about dancing. The opening polka is followed up in the second movement by a darker, more melancholic Andante (the “dumka” or folk lament, which is in turn contrasted by a lively Vivace section.  The third movement, labelled “Romanza,” is lyrical, yearning, and optimistic. Finally, the fourth movement returns to the stylized evocation of the dance hall with an exceptionally catchy and upbeat “skočná,” the fast-paced folk dance also used extensively by the composer in his Slavonic Dances. A meno mosso restatement of the main theme followed by a tiny, fast coda provided a final flourish to, as the programme notes suggested “send the listener on his merry way.” 

After such a programme, however, the listener proved not so eager to be sent. Applause continued until the Quartet returned to their designated performance spot in front of the windows to serve us “one more bonbon”: Rolf Gjelsten’s arrangement for string quartet of Janáček’s Znělka (“Sonnet”) in A Major, JW VII/1 (originally composed for four violins). The choice of a Czech composer for the encore was made in deference to Frederick Turnovsky’s original nationality, but also served as a fitting coda to a programme so firmly grounded in the Austro-Hungarian region (with even the deeply local Gareth Farr piece audibly connected by theme and technique to the “Hungarian” works placed before and after it). In all, I would have to say that not only the playing but the programme composition was superb; coherent, surprising, logical yet unexpected. The Haydn and Dvořák “standards” were meaningfully illuminated by juxtaposition with the less-known Farr and Ligeti works (and vice versa). While I may remain dubious about the terminology “Premium Concert Experience,” there is no doubt that this was, absolutely, a “premium” musical experience, and one I’m profoundly glad I had the opportunity to hear.

Transcending the Great Schism: Divine Orthodox Music at the Anglican Cathedral – from the Tudor Consort

ICONIC
The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart, director
With Andrew Joyce (cello soloist)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday 24 July  (rescheduled from 26 June)  2021

Review posted 5th November 2021

What? A review of a concert that happened all the way back in July?? Appearing on Middle C in November???

Yes, the bad news is that your faithful reviewer overcommitted herself and failed to review this concert in a timely fashion.  The good news is that this luminous programme by the Tudor Concert is almost as fresh in my memory now as it was in late July, where it formed a highlight of the Wellington choral calendar.  The even better news is that The Tudor Consort has another concert coming up THIS VERY SATURDAY, November 6, so if you missed their foray into Russian Orthodox music — or are simply ready for their next outing — you can satisfy your appetite for their ethereal, impeccably tuned sound this weekend. (Tickets are available at their website: https://www.tudor-consort.org.nz/)

Full disclosure: I arrived at the concert with a vested interest of sorts, having consulted for the choir on the finer points of Church Slavonic pronunciation.  Let me therefore reassure readers that the choir’s Slavonic pronunciation — albeit of no great concern to anyone but myself — was excellent, with only one or two tell-tale “soft” Ls where “hard” Ls should have been.

On to the main event — the music!  The choir created a properly solemn and devotional atmosphere from the outset, by beginning with the ritually appropriate opening exclamation, glorifying the Trinity, shared between priest (bass) and deacon (tenor), and responded to by the choir with the “Amin'” that begins the actual published score of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Op. 37)  Coming at the beginning of the concert, this had the effect of an invocation, calling on the audience to attend to the music as sacred, not merely aesthetically pleasing.  Other audience members I spoke to shared my impression that this actually did deepen their focus on the music. Of course, hearing sacred music in a sacred space also contributes to the sense of atmosphere that the composers strove to create.

The choir continued with the two opening movements of the Vigil: Priidite, poklonimsia (Come, Let Us Worship) and Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul). These were taken a touch faster than I would have done them — it is quite tricky to give Rachmaninoff’s music time enough to breathe without letting it stretch so far that it attenuates.  (Robert Shaw’s much-admired 1990 recording, which introduced the Vigil to Western audiences, leans too far in the latter direction in my opinion.)  Apart from musical considerations, the music is physically challenging to sing and the singers, as well as the music, need time to breathe — so that the tempo is always, in some sense, a contest for oxygen between the score and its performers.  In conclusion, there is much to balance!  The Priidite lost a little of its majesty at the faster tempo, but this was compensated for by the choir’s meticulous attention to tuning and dynamics — the latter being awe-inspiring at any speed. In the Blagoslovi, the alto soloist seemed to want to move more quickly than the choir; an effect that was not entirely out of place with the mood of this movement as a whole, in which the alto soloist represents the earthly, restless and passionate voice of humanity framed by a celestial choir of sopranos, tenors, and the de rigueur Russian low basses, moving in a measured homophony above and below. The soloist, Anna-Maria Kostina, brought a suitably dark, embodied sound to her melodic line, based on the traditional Orthodox chant for this psalm, while the sopranos and male voices provided a transparent, ethereal harmonic backdrop.  The basses nailed their final low “C” (that’s the one two ledger lines below the stave, for those keeping score) to thrilling effect.

The stellar work from the bass section continued in John Tavener’s Song for Athene, where the basses have to maintain a solid drone on two Fs an octave apart for the entire duration of the piece — over 6 minutes. Incredibly difficult to do without wavering or passing out! This drone is one of two elements that can make or break the piece; the other is the rising and falling scales on “Alleluia” which must be justly tuned to the drone. Tuning is where the Tudor Consort shines brightest, and they absolutely hit this piece for six — anyone in the audience hearing it for the first time must surely have felt goosebumps as each new harmony was lifted out and presented clearly to our ears, the dynamics swelling from pp to ff to thrilling effect (in my notes I just have the word “DYNAMICS” in all caps with two happy faces next to it). Famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, this is probably Tavener’s best-known composition, but I haven’t heard a better performance of it than the one the Tudor Consort gave here.

Next up were two more obscure works by Arvo Pärt and Georgii Sviridov, respectively.  Pärt’s austere Summa (1977) — a setting of the Credo text in Latin — was sung by a smaller group drawn from the full choir.  This work also exists in an arrangement for strings, and I’m inclined to think its minimalism works better in that format; the music doesn’t seem to correspond to the text in any way, and I found the lack of correspondence somewhat distracting. The repetitious, episodic phrasing sounds weirdly inexpressive in the human voice, especially given a text as narrative as the Credo. Despite an excellent performance, this piece didn’t move from the “competent” into the “transcendent” column for me.  Sviridov’s Trisagion (“Holy God”/Svyatyi Bozhe), from his collection Hymns and Prayers (1980-97), was of greater interest.

Sviridov, a quintessentially Soviet composer strongly influenced by Shostakovich, composed primarily choral music but for political reasons could not write sacred music for most of his life. Nonetheless, Orthodox liturgical singing was a crucial source of inspiration for him — something critics have been able to discuss and analyse freely only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and the post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church allowed him, finally, to compose explicitly in the tradition that had inspired him for so long. The Hymns and Prayers thus stand in a kind of bookend relationship to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (1915): one the last gasp of the Russian choral Golden Age before the Revolution, the other groping for reconnection to that severed tradition after a 75-year detour.  One cannot, of course, compare them: while Orthodox music is generally more homophonic than Western sacred music, Rachmaninoff’s choral writing is almost orchestral in its assignment of different roles and colors to different voice parts, and he uses polyphony to create narrative movement, often almost seeming to “translate” the text into musical language (in a completely different way from the word-painting of a Weelkes or a Monteverdi; Rachmaninoff depicts the mood of the text rather than concrete images). The Sviridov settings, on the other hand, are purely chordal; one feels they could be transposed up or down to suit whatever group of voices (women, men, children, etc.) one might have on hand.  The effect lies in the transparency of the harmony, the wide diapason (from angelic thirds in the upper soprano range to rumbly low Cs in the basses) and in the dynamics, all fully animated by the Tudor Consort both here and in the “Come Let Us Worship” movement, which they performed in the second half.

Though enjoyable, Sviridov’s Trisagion felt mostly valuable as an introduction to the text (in Slavonic, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) much more dramatically set by John Tavener in the piece that closed the first half, Svyati (1995). Almost seven times longer than the Sviridov setting, Tavener’s composition incorporates a solo cello (the incomparable Andrew Joyce) in the role of priest or cantor, playing a molto rubato, passionate but austere chant-like solo line over (yes) a bass drone on a low E. The rest of the choir gradually fills in, moving from a “tender, radiant” pianissimo to a “strong, but pleading” forte in 12 parts. I have Opinions about this piece and they did not always coincide with the performers’; Joyce added portamento touches to the cello line that felt a bit too Western-Romantic to me (Tavener notes that the cello should be “played without any sentiment of a Western character”), and some of the moving parts felt a bit lost in the vast space of the Cathedral. However, the performance was very effective and the ending in particular — with the cello playing impossibly high harmonics and the choir singing pianissimo — was absolutely ravishing.

The second half of the concert alternated bits and pieces from Rachmaninoff’s Vigil (Op. 37) and Liturgy (Op. 31) with further entries from Sviridov, Pärt, and Tavener. I’ve already mentioned the Sviridov “Come Let Us Worship” which opened this part of the program. This was followed by two hymns to the Virgin Mary, by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt setting was unexpectedly fast, with something of the quality of a Christmas carol sung under one’s window by a group of singers trying to keep warm. In complete contrast, the Rachmaninoff setting (from the Vigil) approached the text with a gentle reverence much more typical of Orthodox treatments of this “feminine” hymn, but swelling to a majestic ff for the high notes on the final “Rejoice” before pulling back to a more lullaby-like pp for the final phrase.  Next came one more movement from the Vigil, “Kvalite” (“Praise the name of the Lord”): here as elsewhere, I felt the tempo was a little rushed, and this was the only time in the programme where I felt the sopranos were a little overtaxed, with fast-moving forte high notes in three-way divisi, but really it seems churlish to say so given how angelic they sounded for 99% of the concert.

A return to the Virgin Mary theme with Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (this one sans bass drone, which must have delighted the basses, but the trademark dramatic dynamics and stained-glass harmonies were in full evidence) was followed by something completely unexpected: a Pärt setting of a Gospel text, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997; text from Mt. 26:6-13). I had never heard this before and found it very interesting. Unlike the other Pärt works on the program, this one seemed closely attentive to narrative structure, moving in three sections; first, the opening story about the woman’s actions, carried mostly by women’s voices; second, the discussion between Jesus and the disciples about it, carried mostly by men’s voices with the basses voicing Jesus, touching off isolated syllables like phosphorescent traces in the upper voices; and third, the “Verily I say…” peroration, given by the full choir in stately descending chords.  I don’t know that this was necessarily my favourite piece from the second half, but it was the most surprising and made me want to take a closer look at Pärt’s many settings of Gospel texts (I had only been familiar with his Passio previously).

Finally, two movements from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom rounded out the program.  The Liturgy feels more domestic to me than the Vigil and in that sense these felt slightly anticlimactic (and the Russian in me felt mildly scandalized that singers were allowed to take breaths in between phrases — totally normal in Western singing but strongly discouraged on the other side of the Great Schism!).  The “Tebe poem” (To Thee We Sing) is a gorgeous, hushed wave of choral sound from which emerges a soprano soloist (name not listed, alas) somewhat like a mermaid, momentarily embodying the prayers of the masses. Michael Stewart enhanced this effect by having the choir hum rather than sing under the solo line. A small disagreement over timing saw the soloist reach the finish line ahead of the choir.  The concert closed on the Cherubic Hymn from the same work, which performs the opposite trick; instead of a soprano voice arising from the harmonies created by the choir, here the harmonies gradually unfold from a single unison “D” in the upper voices, which unfurls through cascading downward scales in the second soprano and alto parts until the tenors and, finally, the basses are swept into the harmony.  At the end, everyone stays in, but the scales rise again until the sopranos are back on their original “D.”  In a way, it tells the whole story of sacred music — from monody all the way to jubilant 9-part harmony with operatic-sounding sopranos and back again. In that sense, it formed a fitting capstone to a lovely concert.  Everyone I spoke to afterward felt, with me, that we had been treated to a very distinguished example of what a concert of sacred music in a sacred space can be.

An Orchestral Feast Showcasing a Rising Star – Peter Gjelsten (violin) with the Wellington Youth Orchestra

The Wellington Youth Orchestra
with Mark Carter (conductor)
and Peter Gjelsten (solo violin)

BEETHOVEN – Overture to “Egmont” (Op. 84)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto (Op. 35)
BIZET – Farandole from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Sunday, 10 October

Livestreamed and archived at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMCG9f1OeXk

Pre-concert interview with Peter Gjelsten on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat/audio/2018815593/peter-gjelsten-plays-tchaikovsky

An atmosphere of excitement pervaded St. Andrews as the sold-out Alert Level 2 crowd sorted out its seating arrangements for this much-anticipated season-closing concert showcasing the winner of WYO’s 2021 Concerto Competition, Peter Gjelsten, in Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto.  I carefully mulled my seating options — either up in the gallery with many of the cognoscenti, or downstairs in the front row within stabbing range of the principal cellist (Jack Moyer, who heroically overlooked my tactless proximity) — and opted for the latter, more exciting place close to the thick of the action.  There were plenty of fireworks to look forward to, with three well-known and majestic pieces on the program.

First, however, some orchestra business was to be conducted: acknowledgements and encomia for Tom Gott, the outgoing chair of the Wellington Youth Orchestras Board, whose name has been given to a large silver cup which will henceforth be awarded annually to, and inscribed with the names of the Concerto Competition winners.  Aside from being heartwarming, this raised anticipation for the concerto performance to come — but first, the orchestra (sans concerto winner) treated us to a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.

The stately, portentous opening chords of this overture are thrilling to hear live, and the orchestra sounded as if it was thrilled too, playing with conviction, confidence, and fire.  The string players seemed unafraid to get athletic for the loud bits, and the woodwinds held their own in reply, making for a crisp, well-balanced sound.  Shapely phrases and nicely observed dynamics emerged from under Mark Carter’s elegant, efficient conducting.  It’s clear that he and these players are very comfortable with each other and communicate with ease.

With “Egmont” as entrée, the audience prepared for an equally delicious main course: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I first heard this concerto 25 years ago, at the 1996 “Stars of the White Nights” festival in St. Petersburg.  Tickets being cheap and my Russian host family somewhat unfriendly, I tried to go out to concerts every night without too much regard for what was on the programme — and thus it was that I happened to end up hearing the Tchaikovsky concerto on two consecutive nights, with two different orchestras and two different soloists.  On first hearing, I was unmoved.  The music seemed showy but not interesting, and the harmonics and interpolated high notes in the first movement sounded so crude and approximate that I was almost offended to be subjected to them.  (I won’t say who I think the offending soloist was because I’m not 100% sure and can’t find the notebook where I wrote it down!)  The next evening, I returned to the same hall and, after a few moments of déja vu, realized I was hearing the same piece as the night before, this time played by Gidon Kremer.  It was electrifying!  From this experience I learned that, while this concerto is indeed flashy and even macho in places, it falls flat as a pancake without careful attention to phrasing and, especially, intonation.

Fortunately these are particular strengths of Gjelsten’s, as we soon found out.  In an interview the day before on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat” programme, he had cited Augustin Hadelich’s recording of the concerto as a particular source of inspiration, and the influence was palpable both in his sweetness of tone and in his phrasing which brought out the character, and the lovely melodic material, of the solo line.  Gjelsten also plays with a physical freedom and looseness that is lovely to watch.  Throughout the first movement, he seemed to take its many and diverse technical demands in stride while also feeling totally at home in the music.

A particular pleasure of this concerto is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and in particular the moments where they join each other.  Famously, the piece opens with a melody in the strings that never returns; pretty in its own right, it suggests that we might be in for some sort of pastoral scene, with the woodwinds suggesting a few clouds appearing in the strings’ sunny sky, but before the day takes on any settled character, along comes the solo violin like the Messenger in a Greek play and says something like “Hey, guys, let’s play THIS ONE,” starting up the first movement’s main theme.  Immediately attentive to this charismatic newcomer, the orchestra falls in with his proposal and starts singing back-up, as it were. The same thing happens with the second theme, until after a few minutes of development (featuring some lovely bubbly solo runs for clarinet and flute; overall, the WYO’s woodwinds were excellent) everyone joins in triumphantly on a majestic tutti statement of the main theme, one of the most satisfying moments in any concerto.  In fact it’s so satisfying they do it again a few minutes later (Tchaikovsky never being one to waste an effect he was pleased with, though he obviously had tunes to spare).

There follows the cadenza, not only technically devilish but also challenging to make music out of — as my 1996 experience attests.  I loved Gjelsten’s rendition.  The technicalities of it seemed to disappear — I never felt a gap between the player and his instrument, but rather a sense of complete ease, as though the music was coming directly out of the performer via the violin rather than being coaxed from the latter by the former. The fireworks here — including super-fast runs ending in super-high harmonics — are inevitably impressive but not inevitably pleasurable; Gjelsten’s playing was both, and led beautifully into one of my favourite moments of the entire concerto, the soloist’s culminating trill on a high A that magically transforms from a show-off move into a demure pedal note in the background as the flute comes in with a sweet-voiced restatement of the main theme.  If it were a Disney movie there would be small birds flying around the players’ heads.

After this, things gradually pick up steam again (I have a mysterious scribble in my notes about a particular repeated motif reminding me of Philip Glass; I think this might have been around bar 293), collecting energy for the solo vs. tutti triple-f race to the finish.  The audience REALLY wanted to applaud here, but most of us reluctantly restrained ourselves.  It felt a bit like watching someone land a series of triple axles without cheering, but decorum must have its due I suppose.

Early listeners of this concerto felt that the second movement was the only one Tchaikovsky got right, in between the “unplayable” first movement (Auer) and the “brutal and wretched jollity” of the third (Hanslick).  Hanslick presumably liked it because it didn’t sound “Russian” to him, though I can’t imagine why not; the opening chorale in the woodwinds especially is reminiscent of the nostalgic, sorrowful yet resolute music Tchaikovsky wrote to represent Rus’ under the Mongol yoke in his Moscow Cantata.  One thing this movement IS very good for is giving the audience a moment to breathe and notice that behind the soloist there are other instruments in the orchestra; most notably the woodwinds, who did some lovely playing here. I particularly enjoyed the bassoon solos, but flute and clarinet also shone, emerging and re-merging in brief duets with one another or with the solo violin. We had a few minutes to savour their interplay and the orchestra’s and conductor’s beautiful dynamics before diving headfirst into the breathless “Allegro vivacissimo” third movement.

Here again one hears genuine dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, with the violin once again saying “Let’s play THIS one!” (or perhaps just “Let’s DANCE!”) to the orchestra, whose various sections play, clap (pizzicato strings; rhythmically bowing cellos), or sing (droning basses, various lyrical counterpoints in the woodwinds) along, adding their own spin on the material and suggesting different moods as it develops (though the violin’s irrepressible will to dance always re-emerges sooner or later).  There are two official themes here but many distinct melodies; the woodwinds, who again did thoroughly delightful work here, get their own “verse” of the song, bringing a slower tempo and a lyrical melancholy before once again getting swept into the dance.  The sinuous “inverse descants” by the clarinet and bassoon in the Quasi Andante section were especially lovely.  And of course we finished on a satisfying loud fast bit — this orchestra sounds absolutely terrific on loud fast bits — and were finally allowed to clap.  This took some time, as the audience had a lot of pent-up admiration to expend.

As it turned out, so did the orchestra, and they took their feelings out on the Farandole movement of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2.  This piece is a regulation banger, and the orchestra played it accordingly, with the same verve and panache as the tutti sections of the previous works.  It made for a suitable dessert after the Russian banquet cooked up by Tchaikovsky, and a nice way to reunite Peter Gjelsten (now sitting in the back row of the first violins) with the rest of the team. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about the whole concert was feeling this sense of teamwork among the performers; in these days of international superstars one rarely gets to hear a concerto played by a violinist with his home orchestra, conducted by their own musical director.  One felt this in the lightness of touch Mark Carter was able to bring to his conducting, in the soloist’s sense of ease, and in the generosity of the orchestra’s response to the soloist.  Overall a very worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a magnificent first outing for the new Tom Gott Cup.

Henry Purcell’s “Food of Love” at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul

Wellington Cathedral’s TGIF recital series presents:
HENRY PURCELL – Songs and Duets
Anna Sedcole (soprano) / Helene Page (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Stewart (harpsichord)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Friday, 23rd July 2021

There is a particular pleasure in hearing a duet sung by two voices that are well-matched in timbre, especially when the singers obviously share not only a vocal quality but a musical sensibility and a personal rapport.  Such were the harmonies on offer at this presentation of Purcell songs, performed by old friends Anna Sedcole and Helene Page, and accompanied fluently and unobtrusively on harpsichord by Michael Stewart, the Cathedral’s Director of Music, who also happens to be married to Sedcole — completing the sense of a musical afternoon among friends.  At its best, the concert felt almost spontaneous, as if the three felt a common impulse to burst into song. Such a carefree effect, of course, bespeaks careful and devoted preparation.

The recital opened with “Music for a while” from the incidental music to Oedipus, sung by Page in a warm but austere mezzo-soprano reminiscent of a Baroque recorder. While the vast vertical space of the Cathedral did its best to swallow her low notes, she made a compelling case for the “beguiling” properties of music, which was amply borne out by the next two numbers, “Let us wander” and “Lost is my quiet.” Here we got to appreciate fully how well-suited the two voices were to each other, each striking overtones off the other that showcased Purcell’s harmonies beautifully.  Ornaments and fast-moving passages were clearly articulated for the audience to appreciate.  Next came “If music be the food of love,” showcasing Sedcole’s agile, flute-like soprano.  I especially appreciated her sensitive dynamics (again not easy given the voracity of the space) and bright, clean articulation, so necessary in this music (and the polar opposite of the viscous legato required for the Russian choral repertoire the singer would be performing the following night as a member of the Tudor Consort!).

Page then returned and the two sang a gorgeous love duet, “My dearest, my fairest,” making the most of long, languishing melismas, suspensions, resolutions, and a hocketing “no, no” at the end that recalled bird song (and made one wonder whether a tragic ending was secretly encoded in this otherwise idyllic pastoral-sounding romance.  Having now looked up the play for which Purcell wrote this song, Pausanias, the betrayer of his country: a tragedy by Richard Norton, I find it indeed precedes a scene in which the eponymous hero’s lover, Pandora, attempts to seduce his lieutenant — so Purcell seems to have caught the mood here exceptionally well).

A slight technical malfunction in the harpsichord recalled us to Michael Stewart’s labours at the keyboard, and afforded an opportunity to marvel a second time at the family likeness between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the opening bars of the next duet, “Sound the trumpet” (from Come Ye Sons of Art, one of the odes Purcell wrote to commemorate the birthday of Queen Mary II in 1694).  Appropriately jubilant, it was sung with fine rhythm, vigour, and precision, and went with a swing.  The next piece was a total contrast in all but the technical excellence of the performance: the slow, melancholy and poignant “O Solitude,” sung by Helene Page in a tender legato which reminded one of liquid honey, the vocal decorations — mordents and small trills — offered to the listener precise and unhurried.

The final two songs, both duets, were drawn from King Arthur, an opera I’m now extremely curious to see performed in its “Restoration spectacular” entirety.  The first of these, a duet of shepherdesses entitled “Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying” was the highlight of the program for me: witty and nimble. I would have placed it last on the program instead of “Two daughters of this aged stream” (a song for two sirens), whose more languid tempo and theme (and final refrain of “And circle round, and circle round”) suggested intrigue rather than peroration.  Intrigue, however, was there none; the performers ended their recital promptly at the destined hour, leaving their audience satisfied but not surfeited with Baroque harmonies.