“The Choicest Songs” – an Anniversary concert from Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel, Karori

“The Choicest Songs”
A presentation celebrating the 30th anniversary of Baroque Voices
and commemorating various other anniversaries pertaining to Futuna Chapel and its creation

Music by John Dowland and his contemporaries
also Henry Purcell, Monica Verburg and Pepe Becker

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker (soprano), David Morriss (bass)
Douglas Mews (virginals and recorder), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

A review by Peter Mechen (Middle C)

On a still and sunny day, Futuna Chapel (built in 1961) in Karori exudes a unique interior atmosphere wrought by the play of light through angularly-placed stained-glass windows which contrast with rather more secluded interior vistas, the whole evoking its own singular version of a kind of eternity, one vaster than the actual limited spaces might give one to suggest, but compensating with the mystery wrought by the contrasts. It’s no longer a consecrated chapel, as was the case when I arrived there as a wide-eyed student from a Palmerston North Catholic school in the 1960s, making the first of two separate live-in spiritual retreats here, and relishing what used to be (alas, no longer) a surrounding hinterland of native bush through which one could walk and contemplate what seemed like a natural extension of the intangible mysteries I and my classmates were steeped in at that age (I freely admit it wasn’t entirely a haven of concentrated spiritual refurbishment, as we fifteen year-old boys seemed to all too readily find clandestine ways to entertain ourselves in more worldly pastimes thru  games of cards and dice in more secluded parts of that magnificent stand of bush!).

Today, however, was dull and overcast in Karori, as it was elsewhere in Wellington, with the chapel interior having all the more austere and gloomy an atmosphere for our promised concert, organised by the indefatigable Pepe Becker, the “guiding Light” behind the Wellington group “Baroque Voices”, whose 3O-year performing anniversary falls this month. Fortunately the bustle and atmosphere created by an enthusiastic (and practically full-house) audience created an ambience of its own which even the “ticky-tacky suburbia” that has ravaged the once-verdant surroundings couldn’t detract from once we were inside and registering the chapel interior’s still-stunning evocations of its own version of spirituality.

Pepe Becker’s programme notes reminded us that today’s concert was an occasion of anniversaries, being the 100th birthday of Futuna Chapel’s architect John Scott, who died in 1992 at the age of 68. And, coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of another important creative artist, Jim Allen, four of whose sculptures are embedded in the chapel’s architectural fabric. These anniversaries prompted the Futuna Chapel Trust to commission from Pepe Becker a new work commemorating both architect and artist, one called “concrete, wood and light” and were to be performed at today’s concert.

But there were premieres aplenty today, with two others featuring songs Pepe had written dedicated to two of her performing colleagues, bass David Morriss and the viol player Robert Oliver. First, we heard a song called “Fog”, with words written by the poet Carl Sandburg, and secondly an “Ave Maria” setting , one with an extra dedication to Pepe’s former mother-in-law, Mary Becker, who died in 2022. These songs all included the overall title “Capricorn”, alluding to the star-sign all of the people involved (including the poet!).  Adding further distinction to the concert were two more premieres by a different composer, a pair of songs called “Reflections”, with both words and music written by a flute-player friend of Pepe’s, Monica Verburg, interested in the combination of voice and recorder. Pepe remarked upon the pleasure of performing so many of these songs in close association with the people they were dedicated to.

Beside the premieres there were works whose sounds, sentiments and spirit expressed a defining aspect of Baroque Voices’ raison d’etre, songs variously by John Dowland and Henry Purcell rubbing shoulders with a couple of instrumental performances featuring music by lesser-known contemporaries, Tobias Hume (1579-1645) and a name I didn’t know, William Inglot (1553-1621). Though one often encounters the quote “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” from the composer’s own title for one of his consort pieces, not all of his music is steeped in melancholy, as the concert’s opening number demonstrated – Up merry mates, from Dowland’s last book of songs the 1612 A Pilgrimes Solace, was presented here as a lively dialogue song between a ship’s master (Pepe) and his crew (David) on the occasion of rough weather, one which contains a philosophical response to the whims of nature (and some extremely low notes which David Morriss did well to negotiate!). The following heartfelt Toss not my soul was, by comparison, more characteristically sombre, beautifully voiced by the singers and sensitively accompanied.

We then got two delightfully contrasting instrumental solos from Robert Oliver featuring the relatively unknown Tobia Hume’s music – firstly Adieu Sweet Love from the composer’s 1605 book The First Part of Ayres, and then the livelier The spirit of Gambo; then it was back to Dowland again, for an attractive, open-hearted Sleep, wayward thoughts, again expressing a mood somewhat removed from the melancholic character usually accorded his work. I do recall my mother, who was a music teacher, being extremely fond of some of the composer’s Lute Dances which had been transcribed for piano, a number of which were anything but melancholic (the cheerful My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe being one that particularly sticks in the memory).\

Next were three Purcell songs, each demonstrating the composer’s gift for expressing the actual “energy” of words, the first song Come, let us leave the town from “The Faerie Queen” replete with lively, oft-repeated canonic “comes” and other persuasively impressive urgencies from the two singers, all in stark contrast to the following Lost is my Quiet, a soulful lament for what each singer describes as “life’s happiest part”, though we were given a semblance of contentment by the rather more lively While bolts and bars my days control,  a song describing the mind as unfettered and “freeborn” though the body be held in captivity.

Came the first of the “Capricorn” premieres, with Pepe Becker’s “Fog” leading the way, Sandburg’s text brief and unprepossessing, characterising the fog as a cat-like in its movements and aspect, David Morriss’s voice suitably dark and restrained, and Robert Oliver’s viol-playing spare and stark as befitted the scenario. This was followed by Monica Verburg’s “Two Reflections” for soprano and recorder, written earlier this year, the first “Turn your eyes” imploring the listener with stepwise figurations to “follow a path that’s good and true”, and with the final words “see the beauty all around” reminding one of Mahler’s use of Chinese poetry in part of his “Das Lied Von der Erde”.

The second song “Ocean breeze” had a more meandering kind of opening, one whose phrasings took up a gentle kind of siciliana rhythm, Pepe’s voice and Douglas Mews’ recorder-playing beautifully delineating their own courseways through scenarios lit up by the setting sun and framed by oceanic surgings. I remember at one point the text “ocean breezes come by with the promise of a new day” coincided with a gust of wind outside the chapel which we all heard make its presence felt!

The last of the three Capricorn settings was an “Ave Maria” written by Pepe last year (2023) but only now receiving its premiere performance – set for soprano, bass and bass viol, and dedicated to both David and Robert, the work was written also for Pepe’s “lovely former mother-in-law”, Mary Becker, who died in 2022, and was performed today in her memory. The opening of the work had a kind of prayerful, reverential beginning, with a second part that became more interactive between the voices and more imploring via some beautiful ascending phrases, before concluding with repeated “Amens”.

More songs, firstly from Purcell and finally, Dowland – the two Purcell songs brought out some truly satisfying singing from both voices, firstly, we enjoyed Leave these useless arts in loving, the nimbleness of both voices a real delight, and then the absolutely delicious Come let us agree, from the composer’s “Timon of Athens”, the words containing sentiments than no-one present would have dreamed of disputing! – and especially in the wake of this performance!

The return of Dowland for the last three items in the “song” bracket brought a beautiful solemnity to the first of these, Flow my tears, a song that contained the words “Where night’s blackbird her sad infamy sings”, and featured a virginals-only accompaniment (I read somewhere that this became Dowland’s single most famous song, a kind of “signature-tune” – certainly, on the strength of this stirring performance one could understand why!).

At this point we were treated to the second of our instrument-only interludes, this one courtesy of Douglas Mews at the virginals, and featuring a work by another lesser-known composer, one William Inglott (c.1553-1621). Although obscure today, Inglott carved out a sufficient reputation for himself in his lifetime to have a plaque at Norwich Cathedral erected at his death (and after being restored in the 18th Century, one which survives to this present day). Douglas Mews read a poem on which Inglott’s composition, The Leaves Bee Greene, was based – one which I haven’t been able to locate for this review, unfortunately, but was still eminently worth hearing.

Of the two remaining Dowland songs, the first, the renowned Fine knacks for Ladies again most delightfully gave the lie to the idea of the composer being “semper dolens”, the words tripping over the tongues and from the mouths of both singers, and mellifluously accompanied not only by the bass viol, but additionally by Douglas Mews’ recorder in the second and third verses.  After this the last of the songs was always going to sound relatively subdued, but perhaps not inappropriately – words and music of Now, O now I needs must part took on a strong hymn-like character as the singers and instrumentalists (from Verse Three onwards Robert Oliver’s bass viol was joined by Douglas Mews’ recorder once again) gave the sentiments all due sonorous and characterful strength up to the end – very beautiful and heart-warming!

So to the concert’s final item, another premiere, this time a joint commemorative tribute from composer Pepe Becker and poet/writer Gregory O’Brien (whose words had already been written for an earlier publication, and were now set to Pepe’s music for this occasion) to the work of architect John Scott and sculptor Jim Allen. This work, called “Concrete, Wood and Light” was crafted for what the composer called  “an aptly unconventional” Quartet of soprano, recorder, bass and bass viol, with additional wood, stone and body-percussion added to the mix – what Pepe called a “sonic homage” to the building’s many colours and textures.

Begun by vocal humming and various kinds of other vocalisings, singers and instrumentalists began intoning the text, along with ambient irruptions of various percussion sounds, and the recorder joining in with the voices. The work reached a focal point at the words “You are a shelter or clearing in which we find our voices”, continuing towards the text’s final reference  to “the L-shaped silence of your body”. The rest was resonance and presence and awareness, and with a great oneness at the end – all that seemed to matter was the space itself and the renewed and reaffirmed life into which the  artists, performers and audience had poured themselves today.

 

 

 

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The NZSQ and Quintessence – a day in the life of a string quartet

Quintessence: an NZSQ Celebration

Concert introduced by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust

BRAHMS – String Quartet No 3 in B-flat Major Op.67
Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Farewell speech made by Monique Lapins, Second Violin of the New Zealand String Quartet

MOZART – String Quintet No.1 in B-flat major K.174
Helene Pohl (leader), Peter Clark (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Monique Lapins (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday 7th June, 2024

It had to come – this was Monique Lapins’ final concert with the New Zealand String Quartet, marking her decision to move on after eight years spent as the group’s second violinist. With characteristic aplomb and due ceremony and not a little emotion, the process of change was here accorded appropriately bitter-sweet valedictory form by all of us who had gathered in the Hunter Council Chamber that evening. We were welcomed by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust, who then paid the warmest of tributes to Monique regarding the significance and success of her tenure with the quartet before wishing her well, to which expression we all gave heartfelt accord.

Monique’s choice of repertoire as her “swan song” with the group was Brahms’s Third String Quartet, a kind of acme of expression for the ensemble, here given extra memorability by the circumstances.
Quartet leader Helene Pohl introduced the work for us, making due reference to the composer’s awareness of Beethoven and his legacy, and its “intimidating” factor for him. As Monique was to specifically mention the Beethoven cycle she had taken part in over the last eight years as a “career highlight” one understood the choice of Brahms as a kind of act of shared homage uniting composer and performer!

It did seem from the outset a kind of “master-class” of quartet-writing, with the composer obviously delighting in the contrasts between the opening “galloping” motiv sounded first in pairs, and then by the whole ensemble, the trajectories then being wreathed with almost insinuating diaphanous textures, and suggesting a Brahms with rather more impressionistic inclination than on previous occasions, as if stepping boldly into unknown territories. I loved the players’ voicings here, with Helene Pohl’s remarkable, almost “ghostly” tones darting around the others’ sombre impulses leading up to the almost artless dance-tune over which the cross-rhythms firstly send the players scurrying back to the beginning, and then dare those brave and bold enough to “sound out” the unknown territories before calling their bluff with some trenchant figurations. Masterly!

The second movement had Brahms in an almost “Salut d’amour” mood at its beginning, with ravishing playing of the opening theme from Helene Pohl, before a minor key-change heralded rather more forceful outbursts, tempered by thoughtful contributions from viola and ‘cello. Again, the quartet’s different voicings beautifully opened up for us these moments of impulse encircled by wonderment, and towards a disarming “Amen” at the movement’s close.

Surely the dark-toned Scherzo is one of the composer’s most compelling! – the players here drew us into its almost phantasmagorical world, right from Gillian Ansell’s hypnotic playing of the strangely lurching, almost anguished opening waltz-theme, embellished by the first violin, the music’s poise restored momentarily by a smilingly vigorous dance like major-key figure, and some hauntingly-played modulations into more wistful realms – enchanting, but precarious, with the viola all too ready to take up the agitato opening once again! We waited for the outcome of the exchanges between Gillian’s viola and Helene’s violin, with the viola prevailing and summonsing us onwards to the Trio. As well it might have, because in the beautifully circumspect Trio the viola at first “called the tune”,  even if the violins did between them manage to grab some limelight – but what splendid focus the music gave to the instrument throughout this characterful movement right up to the end!

No better homage to Beethoven could have been devised here by Brahms than through the finale’s theme-and variations, a simple theme’s triplet rhythms cantering in and setting off a variety of characterful responses. How wonderful, though, after we’d welcomed these newcomers, was the sudden reappearance of the work’s opening, and for us to be able to warm to this “old friend” in the music, duly introduced to other characters from different parts of the work! After “who was who” had been sorted out, a brief coda proclaimed honour satisfied, and ended the work with a no-nonsense Brahmsian flourish!

After we’d expressed our heartfelt appreciation regarding the performance, it was, sadly, Monique Lapins’ turn to speak to us all regarding her “having come to the end” of her time with the New Zealand String Quartet, an experience which over the past eight years, she said, had been “the greatest honour” to share the performing stage with such wonderful colleagues, speaking of their “boundless energy, enthusiasm, rich musicality and unwavering commitment to music”. She also paid a warm tribute to the Quartet’s management team (regrettably Quartet Manager Aislinn Ryan couldn’t attend the concert because she had COVID) as well as to all the people who had made up the group’s “wonderful network of supporters” all of whom had helped make the experience for her such a rewarding one. She expressed a warm welcome to her successor, Peter Clark, wishing him well in his new adventure with the group of “making music together”. And with that, she invited the quartet members back onto the performing platform with their new second violinist, so that they could together perform one of Mozart’s most adorable works – the first of the composer’s String Quintets, K.174 in B-flat Major….

We’d previously heard a single movement of this work from the same group at the Quartet’s St Mary of the Angels concert last month (see review at https://middle-c.org/2024/05/18231/), but this time we were treated to the whole of the Quintet. It’s always been a favourite of mine, partly through an ongoing exchange of reactions with an old friend over the work’s opening, vis-à-vis the debatable issue of rhythm predominating over melodic line, or vice-versa (I’ve always plumped for the physical excitement of that driving rhythm, whereas he would “bliss out” over the violin’s soaring melody!). Here, I thought the two were well-nigh equally weighted, as the ensemble chose not to unduly “dig into” the initial notes as did the players on the recording I learned the work from (the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz, whose sound I continue to “hear” in my head as a kind of “template” whenever listening to anybody else play!).

Gorgeous “touches” abounded in this work, such as the introspective moments where individual lines muse and “call out” responses from other instruments, here sounding particularly thoughtful and wistful in places, the lovely duetting between two violas which added a unique colour to the sound, and the sections where the composer’s modulations have that naturally improvisatory flow that his contemporaries envied. The players further enchanted our sensibilities with the slow movement’s beautiful unison opening and the following “Serenata Notturna”-like exchanges, as they also did with the evocative “fairground” aspect of the Menuetto’s carnival-like opening, and the Trio’s beguiling echo effects.

But it was the finale that truly delighted us, especially with the scampering passagework, both canonic and in “unison thirds” from all the players, with some sequences resembling high-speed criss-crossings of trains on rail networks with nary a mishap! We particularly enjoyed the almost naughty incursion of triplets at one point, Mozart simply demonstrating that it could be done and without a misstep! Throughout, the players demonstrated in spadefuls that characteristic aspect of the ensemble, an all-encompassing enjoyment of the act of music-making together, one which Monique Lapins had emphasised in her tribute to her colleagues as perhaps the defining quality that had made her time with the quartet such a positive and memorable experience.

Having at the end of a previous review bade my farewells and good wishes already to Monique, I hesitate to awkwardly repeat myself – except to say that in regard to the evening, I thought her playing, her spoken tributes and her gracious relinquishing of her second violin role to her successor in concert all played a part in contributing to a response from all of us intended to express our warmest appreciation, heartfelt thanks and very best wishes towards her for her journey to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathtaking NZSM wind and brass at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series
NZSM Wind and Brass Solo Recital

Flute: Keeson Perkins Treacher
Oboe: Amy Clough
Piano: Ziqian Xu
Tuba: Sam Zhu

Eugene Bozza – Image
Jacques Ibert – Deux Interludes I. Andante Espressivo, II. Allegro Vivo
W.A. Mozart – Oboe Concerto in C Major (K. 314) II. Adagio ma non troppo
Madeline Dring – Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano. I. Allegro con brio, II. Andante Semplice, III. Allegro Giocoso
Roland Szentpali – Variations on a Children’s Hungarian Song

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 29th May, 2024

It’s not often I get to share my lunchtime concert routine with others, but this week I was joined by my friend (and flatmate). Thankfully, she’s a flutist, and was very generous in helping me with my terminology. As someone with a background in strings, it was very useful to have her point out parts that I may have missed otherwise.

Prior to the concert, I was already impressed by every wind or brass player simply because of their breathing skills. I think I was short changed at some point with my lungs, because I could never achieve their level of breath technique .

The beginning of the concert had a last-minute change from Gabriel Faure’s ‘Fantasie for Flute and Piano’ to Eugene Bozza’s ‘Image.’ Last-minute implies rush, perhaps some panic, but there was none of that in St Andrew’s. Keeson Perkins-Treacher’s performance was a wonderful start to the concert, with lovely phrasing and incredibly smooth trills. My friend made sure that I noticed that the runs were especially smooth.

‘Image’ was followed by Jacques Ibert’s ‘Deux Interludes,’ for the flute, oboe, and piano. The first movement was gorgeous, with a mournful, beautiful melody. It had a great sense of movement. The second movement was fun, but still melancholic, so there was a wonderful tension and energy to it. To be honest, I enjoyed this piece so much that I forgot to take notes.

Amy Clough then took over, with the second movement from Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major (K. 314). From the jump, Amy was brilliant. She has such a smooth, even tone, and a real poise. It all just flowed seamlessly, she essentially sings with the oboe. I could listen to her for hours. Sadly, the concert was only an hour.

Continuing with another piece for a trio, this time by Madeline Dring. The first movement started in full unison, which can be tricky to get right, but they did it perfectly. It’s a fun movement that surprises you, but still feels seamless, with some really nice call and response. The second movement started with Ziqian Xu on the piano, which was just gorgeous. Then the flute came in, and then the oboe. The layering of these parts was so beautiful, and showed great ensemble skills, even in a solo recital. The third movement had slight dissonance, which made the piece all the more exciting. Again, lovely call and response throughout, plus a really great moment where just the flute and oboe played, and then merged into the piano. A great job from all three musicians.

We then switched over to the tuba, which was very exciting. I feel like you rarely get tuba solos, so I was eager to see what it would be like. My first impressions of the tuba was the stereotypical “womp womp” of marching band tubas, but Sam Zhu proved this impression very wrong. He had such smooth and fast runs, which was very impressive. At one point, he sang while playing, which I didn’t even know you could do. I think my jaw may have dropped slightly when my friend explained what he was doing. Everyone in St Andrews were incredibly impressed with his performance, and rightly so.

I left St Andrews in total admiration. The immense skill of these musicians is just breathtaking. Pardon the slight pun, but I genuinely can’t find a better word, or at least, one that I haven’t already used throughout my review.

JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio – a benefit concert for ‘cellist Jack Moyer

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations BWV 988  (arranged for String Trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky)

Monique Lapins (violin)
Alex McFarlane (viola)
Jack Moyer (‘cello)

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

Sunday, 26th May, 2024

Firstly, a bit of history – in 1741 Bach had published a keyboard work with the painstaking title , Aria, with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. It was the concluding work in the composer’s Clavier-Ubung (Keyboard Practice), a publication Bach intended would show a complete range of possibilities for keyboard players, technical, virtuosic, and interpretative.

The work’s opening Aria came from a copy written out by the composer’s second wife, Anna Magdalena of music Bach had made before, one from which he then devised 30 new variations. The legend largely accompanying these pieces grew up out of an 1802 biography of Bach by one Johann Nikolaus Forkel, that the music was written for use by a Count Kaiserling to counter bouts of insomnia, played by the count’s personal harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann. Scholars reckon the story to relate more to the history of the work rather than its origins, as the young Goldberg also took lessons with JS Bach and may have encountered the work as a student.

Estimates regarding the music’s circulation at the time reckon something like 100 printed copies (several of which survive today), but no documented performances were recorded apart from the occasional mention in late nineteenth century recital programmes for the piano. The first name associated with public performance of the work is of the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who began her own “Bach revival” in 1903, eventually recording the work on the harpsichord firstly in 1933 and again in 1946, albeit on her inauthentic custom-built instruments.

Though pianist Claudio Arrau had performed the complete keyboard works of Bach in 1935, and made a recording of the Goldbergs in 1942, the latter recording wasn’t released until the 1980s – by then the work had already “come of age” in gramophone terms thanks to the phenomenon that was the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose renowned 1955 LP recording traversed the globe, bringing the Variations into the mainstream of classical music listening.

Today there are all manner of performances and arrangements of the work, bringing the echt-baroque practice of transcription into our technological age, and taking the work through instruments such as the piano, harp and string ensembles to the world of accordions and marimbas, not to mention saxophone and guitar ensembles and various other jazz trios. One presumes the composer, whose music seemed consigned almost to oblivion for most of the century following his death, would have been gratified at his creation’s remarkable resurgence.

Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s 1985 transcription of the Variations for string trio in 1985 was the one which today’s ensemble of Monique Lapins (violin), Alex McFarlane (viola) and Jack Moyer (‘cello) brought resplendently to life at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace in Wellington. The occasion was a “benefit concert” for the young ‘cellist in the group, Jack Moyer, due to take up a four-year Honours Bachelor of Music programme at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the near-full attendance happily rewarding both the organisers’ and performers’ efforts on behalf of the project.

I had retained a vivid memory of a previous occasion when the New Zealand String Quartet (then with Douglas Bielman as the second violinist, and amazingly, as far back as 2013) performed a quartet arrangement of the work, made by William Cowdery – one of several performances by the quartet at around that time. This later concert was, of course, a different kind of experience in almost every way, apart from my shared feeling here at the work’s end, as in 2013, that “we were able to coexist, for a short time, with a kind of transcendental awareness of things, by way of music whose being somehow seemed to accord with our own existence” – for interest’s sakes, a link to the original review is here provided – https://middle-c.org/2013/05/the-goldbergs-with-strings-attached/

Right from violinist Monique Lapins’ beautifully-nuanced delivery of the theme, with its spacious vistas inviting the most delicate of embellishments when repeated, we were drawn into the Bachian world of infinite possibility! All was stimulated further by the entirely characteristic change of mood with the instantly-engaging dance rhythm of the first variation, both Alex McFarlane’s viola and Jack Moyer’s ‘cello establishing at various times, whether leading or accompanying, a presence of character in their exuberantly-wrought figurations.

Whatever the nature of each variation as regards tone colour or trajectory, the players took to it instantly, giving as much pleasure in the transition from one mood to another as to their sustaining a piece’s character – so the sequence beginning with the chunkily-voiced, down-to-earth Variation 5, followed by the deftly elfin peregrinations of Variation 6, and the diverting contrasts between song-like melody and dance-like rhythm in Variation 7 made for a delightful string of progressions in itself, capped off by the elegant humour of the composer’s more-than-usually graceful “Gigue” in Variation 8, with every move and gesture, nuance and  decisive movement “sounded” here with conviction.

To neglect or pass lightly over any section of the Goldbergs would seem reprehensible, though I’m not able to resist recounting certain moments in the performance which drew me an indefinably extra “way” into the music. I loved, for instance, the “strut” of the players’ rhythms in the Fuguetta of Variation 10, begun irresistibly by Jack Moyer’s ‘cello, and reinforced in every sense of an occasion by each of the others. How appropriate, then that the following Variation, with its cascading ritual-like descending figures would put one in mind of the ringing of bells! And I warmed, in a different way, to the group’s playing of the beautiful Variation 13, with the viola’s and ‘cello’s tenderly-voiced melodic lines freeing the violin’s descant-like decorations with a bird-like overview. No wonder, then, that what Glenn Gould called the “neo-Scarlatti” energies of the following Variation 14 made such an invigorating contrast – and what virtuoso playing there was from all concerned!

I’m obviously not going to be able to “get to” all the performance highlights whose details I scribbled down in my notebook as quickly as I could, trying to keep up with so many rapid-fire fiddlings! I did, I admit, think the St.Andrews’ acoustic at times bright to a fault, in running the tones of the lighter instruments in particular together more than I would have wished for, so that one or two of the more busily-scored sequences in the concert seemed almost as confused-sounding as conversational to my ears – I rather preferred the string-sound we had enjoyed from the NZSQ in the acoustic of St. Mary of the Angels Church, a little more than a week ago! Fortunately most of the players’ efforts here “worked with” the venue’s sound, enabling them to make a grand and satisfying thing of the work’s halfway point Variation 16’s “French Overture”, phrasing the notes generously rather than over-emphatically as seems to be the “period practice” wont these days. And special mention must be made of the playing here of the famous “Black Pearl” Variation No. 25 (described as such by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska) – incredible music, with the kind of sombre beauty that induces awe, especially those sounds which suggest, as here, that one is in unchartered waters, confronted by the unknowable (simply writing about these moments we heard here still gives me goosebumps!)

As for the “Holy Trinity” of the last three Variations, I (a) loved the players’ almost surreal switching between full-throated and filigree sounds in Variation 27, including some heartfelt chromatic “sighs” in places; (b) was slightly disconcerted by the heavy-handedness of Variation 28, thinking that we might have enjoyed a lighter, more circumspect or humourful touch; and (c) thoroughly enjoyed the earthy “bonhomie” of the renowned Quodlibet Variation – after all of which the return of the Aria was like a benediction in itself – as if the composer was setting the words “And we shall be changed” in a deeply human kind of context, but with every note, bowed or plucked, resonating with us and conveying more than words could ever say……

What an occasion for Jack Moyer! – playing his part superbly alongside two extraordinarily talented fellow musicians at this stage of a musical career will surely rank as an unforgettable experience,  Whatever he goes on to achieve, the uniqueness of this day’s occasion will remain – good luck to him for it all!

Mostly youthful music presented with aplomb by the NZ Trio

Triptych 1: Unquiet Dream

Benjamin Britten: Introduction and allegro for piano trio
Chris Cree-Brown: The Second Triumvirate
Lera Auerbach: Trio No 2 Triptych – this mirror has three faces
Felix Mendelssohn: Trio in D min, Op. 49

 NZ Trio (with guest Sarah Watkins)

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 23 May 2024

 This was a distinctly youthful concert. Not because it was packed with music students (although there were a few there amongst the grey heads, chins thoughtfully propped on knees, listening intently), but because most of the music was written by the young. Britten’s work was composed when he was 18, in his second year at the Royal College of Music, being taught composition by Frank Bridge, who had taken the boy under his wing. The piece was premiered at a party at the Bridge house and then lost. Eventually, a decade after Britten’s death, it was found again and received its public premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 1986.

Lera Auerbach’s piece, the intellectual heart of the concert, was written when she was 38. Auerbach was only 17 and on a concert tour of the US when she defected from the Soviet Union. She is a remarkable talent: a poet, pianist, conductor, and sculptor as well as a composer. She was at the Juilliard with Sarah Watkins, Amalia Hall told us when introducing the work.

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio was written, like his best works, when young. He was only 20, and when it was premiered in September 1839, Schumann described it as ‘the master trio of the age’.

So Chris Cree Brown (b. 1953) was the senior composer represented, although his work, a commission by the Trio, is bang up to date, receiving its premiere on this tour.

First to the Britten. It is a terrific work, and I can only imagine Frank Bridge’s excitement when he first saw it. It opens with a beautiful cello solo, but immediately the tonality is unsettled. There is beautiful piano writing, very reminiscent of Ravel, with rippling liquid passages. But the string writing sounds like no one else: questing, unsettled, exploratory – not like the mature Britten, except in flashes. Ashley Brown described it to us as ‘quirky’ and said, ‘It took a while to grow on us.’  It finishes with the strings playing long, very high, pianissimo chords, with the piano continuing to ask questions underneath. I would have very much liked to hear it again.

The Chris Cree Brown followed. It is a follow-up to the first ‘Triumvirate’, written for the Trio in the early 2000s, and conceived as an imagining of the different voices of a trio at work (discussing, disputing, agreeing). But the second Triumvirate posed some difficulties. According to Ashley Brown, the trio found it helpful to discuss it with the composer while they worked on it. His comments were ‘eye-opening’ and ‘transformed the piece’. Being told that the programme of the work is three personalities in discourse, sometimes breaking into argument was certainly helpful to the audience. The rhythms are complex, imitating speech rhythms, and the work might have been impenetrable without that information.

Next to the Lera Auerbach. Immediately I felt as though we were in the hands of a very interesting musical personality. Like the Cree Brown work, this one also evokes three individuals in harmony and conflict. It is a work in five shortish movements. The middle movement is a kind of Schostakovian waltz, very slow and sardonic. Around it the outer movements explore ‘individuality and ensemble, harmony and conflict’. The first movement began with long, sustained, melancholy phrases; the second featured a passionate, romantic rush of sound from the strings, with amazing piano writing that took Sarah Watkins up and down the length of the keyboard. At the end of the third movement, the sardonic waltz returned. It sounded as though a beautiful doll puppet was being forced to dance to an unpleasant commentary. The fourth movement was very fast, a crazy pursuit at breakneck speed.

The last movement had moments of pure nostalgia (the marking is ‘Adagio nostalgico’), beginning with slow beautiful fragments of melody from the strings while the piano marches towards something.  At one point, the tremulous violin sounded like a sad bird; later, after some general agitation, the violin sang over the cello accompaniment like a bird in a ruin. Finally, the violin sang like a theremin.

We can always rely on the NZ Trio to present interesting music with aplomb, but the Auerbach was a triumph.  More, please!

And after the interval, the Mendelssohn Trio. What can I say? Schumann was right. It’s a lovely work, full of the best Mendelssohnian melodies, beautifully played by the NZ Trio. My notes say ‘a perfect example of chamber writing’, with ’lovely clarity and balance between the strings and piano’.

A note on personnel: founding member Sarah Watkins returned to the Trio because Somi Kim is off on maternity leave. It was as though Sarah had never been away.

On the Cello, and its Reliable Beauty – NZSM Cello Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

NZSM Cello Ensemble – a concert review by Maya Field

St Andrew’s on the Terrace
Wednesday 22nd May
Director: Inbal Megiddo

Performers: Portia Bell , Tomos Christie,  Qian Feng ,  Sebastian Green , Esther Lee , Gemma Maurice , Nathan Parker , Emma Ravens,  Olly Wilkinson

Programme:

W.A. Mozart. Symphony 40 in G minor, K. 550, Molto Allegro (arranged by S. Watkins)
Albeniz. Tango in D, Op. 165, No. 2  (arranged by D. Johnstone)
G. Gimenez. La Boda de Luis Alonso (arranged by B. Dejardin)
J.S. Bach. Sarabande from Suite 6 in D major (arranged by C. Hampton)
Charlie Chaplin. Smile (arranged by S. Walnier)

It’s a universal fact that the cello is a beautiful instrument. It has a deep, round sound with the ability to go into lower and higher pitches without losing its quality. There’s almost an inherent energy to the cello. Is it the nature of the cello, or the skill of the cellists, that brings such energy and liveliness to a performance? I like to think it’s a combination of both, as I’m yet to see a performance where the cellos disappoint. The skilled cellist brings out the beauty of the cello, and the beautiful cello brings out the skill of the cellist.

Apologies for the slightly flowery start, but I think I’m slightly justified in my enthusiasm after the brilliant performance on Wednesday. The NZSM Cello Ensemble hooked me into the music, and reminded me of why I adore the cello.

They opened with the Molto Allegro from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which is a great piece to open with. At midday on Wednesday, it’s always a good idea to start the programme with something to wake up your audience. The ensemble had beautiful phrasing, and had a great balance of all parts. From the jump, they had superb unison: even their breathing was together.

Onto Albeniz, with a Tango in D from the Espana suite. The director, Inbal, explained that this piece was originally written for the piano, so I was interested to see how it was arranged for a cello ensemble. After listening to a recording of the piano version, I can confirm it was a successful arrangement, with each part nicely balanced.

The Gimenez was lively and fun. As a wedding piece dedicated to the Spanish dancer Luis Alonso, there was a real sense of movement and dance, as well as general celebration. Again, they had fantastic unison and timing. There were moments where it felt like the pizzicato and melody were being passed from section to section, which had both a playful and lyrical nature to it.

After the Allegro and two intense dances, the change to the Sarabande from Bach was really lovely. This piece really drove home how well this ensemble does phrasing. Their handle on legato being elegant, but not blurred, was excellent, and everything just had the deep quality you expect from Bach.

The last piece of the programme was a slight break from tradition, but a welcome one. The ensemble performed ‘Smile,’ composed by Charlie Chaplin, the comic, filmmaker, actor, composer, and cellist. ‘Smile’ was composed for Chaplin’s film, ‘Modern Times,’ which was paid tribute to as clips from the film played on screens while the ensemble performed. I suppose the irony is expected from Chaplin, but the piece starts off quite somber, although beautifully somber. My one piece of criticism is that I wish the clips weren’t out of order, and instead were just in the order of the film. I suppose that would raise copyright issues, but I’m nitpicking. It was a great way to finish.

The ensemble did an amazing job, and made a wonderful break from assignments. I say this in every lunchtime review, but I truly mean it: I’m always happy to spend an hour at St Andrews, watching a performance of some great music. I get to take a break from my work, sit in the back of an old (earthquake-proofed) church, usually with a coffee from La Cloche next door, and listen to live music. I struggle to think of a better way to spend my midday on a Wednesday.

Conductor Han-Na-Chang’s NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor Han-Na Chang scores with her NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

LEONIE HOLMES – I watched a shadow*
RICHARD STRAUSS – Don Quixote
(with Andrew Joyce, ‘cello, and Julia Joyce, viola)
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64

Han-Na Chang (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
(Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th May, 2024

I’m probably risking accusations of inverted sexism in drawing special attention in this review to the gender of the conductor on the occasion of this concert! – I solemnly do promise never to underline any such point again, but, after living through the tail-end of the age which regarded the role of orchestra conductor as a male bastion, and not ever having actually used the words “end of an era” to underline what has obviously been a change of things, I feel like “coming out” and hailing as such the appearance of South Korean Han-Na Chang on the NZSO’s podium as a guest conductor as signifying, in a local context, a real milestone.

I say these things having watched a number of women over the years mount the podium to direct the orchestra – conductors from overseas such as Dalia Atlas, Jane Glover, Odaline de la Martinez, Simone Young and Suzanna Malkki, and more recently, homegrown talents such as Holly Mathieson, Tianyi Lu and Gemma New, the latter having been appointed the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2022.  So, if women are of late no strangers to the conductor’s role here in New Zealand with the country’s leading orchestra, what was it about Han-Na Chang’s appearance that constituted something special?

The difference for me was that, unlike with the names mentioned above, Han-Na Chang’s was one completely unknown to me, as have been the names of many of the NZSO’s guest conductors of recent times. She is a fully-qualitied representative of a wider world of music-making which we in this country can only guess at regarding its range and scope , but can experience through the tried-and-true “guest conductor” system, one in which gender seems no longer an issue!

As with any unknown podium guest, the question “What will she be like?” was on the lips of anybody “not in the know”, as the diminutive Han-Na Chang made her entry and mounted the podium. First up in the programme was a local work by the highly-respected Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, one which had received its world premiere the night before in Auckland and was now making its Wellington debut. For a guest conductor to make her NZSO debut with a premiere of a work by a local composer seemed like a boldly positive and forthright gesture, and certainly one which gave Leonie Holmes’s composition I watched a shadow plenty of added interest.

The programme note for this new work contained the words of the poem by Wellingtonian Anne Powell which inspired Holmes’s music, a meditation on the world of nature’s ebb and flow encapsulated in a single crepuscular-like event, a hill embraced by its own shadow. The sounds took the form of an orchestral rhapsody, beginning with a percussive splash and slowly building an austere soundscape, grounded in string-texturings but with waves of contrastingly-flavoured disturbances, like a kind of gradual oceanic movement enlivened by wind-and-brass irruptions.

The work’s central part animated the discourse with pizzicato strings, wind roulades and atmospheric brass touches, expressing something of the variety of nature-impulse described by the poet’s words as “the hum of the universe”, but with bell-sounds, “knell-like” warnings growing a heavy, ominous tread. Though this trenchant mood was relieved, the sounds reformed with fresh impulse, building excitingly towards a great climax with surges of percussion, leaving us wondering at the ambivalence of what we’d heard. Rather like some of Sibelius’s music, Holmes’ work here seemed relatively unpeopled, our own existence’s fate of little account to these dispassionate comings-and-goings. Whatever the case, all was rendered here as committedly by conductor and players as one might imagine posssible.

From natural attrition we proceeded to a world of fantasy, foolishness and nobility, in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Quixote, a musical realisation of aspects of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th-century novel. Strauss cast his deluded picaresque hero, the Don, as a solo ‘cello, and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza by a solo viola, the ensuing dialogues and soliloquies an absolute delight for the listener, as were the colourful orchestral depictions of some of the Don’s adventures. Strauss here flew in the critical face of those conservative commentators of the time who derided what they called “programme music” by elevating the genre at its best to heights of expression and technique surpassed by no-one before or since, with Don Quixote having long been considered the greatest of his works of this kind.

As the two main protagonists, the husband-and-wife team of cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Julia Joyce gave what I thought were vivid portrayals of their respective characters, the former capturing all the would-be knight’s delusional expressions of chivalrous glory as well as his touching final realisations of mortality, and the latter steadfastedly affirming the squire’s support for his master with wryly matter-of-fact observances. Conductor Han-Na Chung’s control of the orchestra throughout the work was masterly, the detailing richly-informed and the overall sweep of certain moments no less than breathtaking! I shall particularly cherish the image of the wind-machine player “giving his all” at the rear of the orchestra during the work’s notorious “flying horse” sequence!

And so to what seemed like the concert’s readily-publicised “raison d’etre”, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a work not lacking in performance history in this part of the world, but despite such popularity, one with the kind of resilience that instantly responds to a “fresh-as-paint” approach from its interpreters. Which is just what Han-Na-Chang conveyed, right from the opening Andante’s portentous clarinet phrases and ever-resonating string accompaniments (I couldn’t see the player from where I was sitting but I presumed the clarinettist was the ever-reliable Patrick Barry!)

What I particularly enjoyed was Chang’s direct and unsentimental approach throughout the work, never pulling about or unduly elongating lines or phrase-ends in search of “expression” when the composer had already ensured sufficient feeling would be generated by playing what was marked – so there was no “swooning” in the strings when the second subject of the opening movement’s allegro arrived, and no accelerando extremities needed to get back up to speed for the movement’s basic tempo, Chang keeping the music’s blood-pulses from ever becalming and losing their trajectories.

The slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic achievements, here also benefited from Chang’s steadiness, particularly with the pizzicato notes that followed the appearance of the motto theme mid-movement – the octave-pizzicato was “in tempo” from its first entrance, rather than being vulgarly “sped up’ and then awkwardly slowed once more, evidence of our conductor’s “tidy mind” and care for musical structure. Oh, and Sam Jacobs’ magical horn solo in this movement deservedly earned him an ovation of his own at the symphony’s end.

The ever-enchanting Waltz with its gorgeous balletic scherzando character throughout the middle section led straight into the Finale, a fulsome major-key motto-theme at the start, and properly “warning” tones from the brasses, just before the great timpani roll that ignited the strings’ allegro vivace entry. I wondered whether there was a brief rhythmic hiccup between strings , brass and timpani during the maelstrom-like passage that preceded the entry of the winds with their long-held-note melody, but perhaps I was mistaken amidst the super-saturations of sound at that point  – and in the comparable passage later in the movement, I heard no hint of misalignment! What was thrilling was the almost visceral stamping rhythm of the strings throughout these “Russian dance” episodes and the rapidity of the brasses’ stuttering notes pushing the music’s trajectories along so (literally!) breathlessly, in places! The swaggering motto-march-theme at the end seemed to gather up all that had gone before and fill the hall’s overhead spaces with exuberances, capped only by the frenetic energies of the coda, and its march-like codicil at the very end!

Very great credit to all concerned, and especially to conductor Han-Na Chang for an auspicious debut, one which was instsntly and generously acknowledged at the concert’s end by a delighted, near-capacity Michael Fowler Centre audience.

 

Cantoris’s enterprising coupling of Gounod and CPE Bach

CHARLES GOUNOD – St. Cecilia Mass
CARL PHILLIPP EMMANUEL BACH – Magnificat

Cantoris Chamber Choir, with the Queen’s Closet
Thomas Nikora (conductor)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday 18 May 2024

Saint-Saëns thought the St Cecilia Mass was Gounod’s best work. But I’d never heard it before, so I was interested to go along to Cantoris’s first concert for 2024 to hear it. As for the ‘Bach Magnificat’, I was excited to find it wasn’t the familiar Magnificat in D major by JS Bach but a completely different work by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, supported by the early music ensemble The Queen’s Closet.

The St Cecilia Mass was written to be performed on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November1855, at St Eustache Church in Paris, where they customarily presented a new mass setting each St Cecilia’s Day. It was originally scored for enormous forces: a large orchestra including six harps, an organ, a four-part chorus, and three soloists (STB). Last night Cantoris gave us Jonathan Berkahn on the organ of St Peter’s Church, as busy as you might imagine, as well as the chorus and three soloists.

It is a big Romantic work, even without the six harps, full of impressive effects. The three soloists usually sing in a trio or duets, rather than taking solo arias, which gave an opportunity to assess them together as well as separately. Soprano Caroline Burchell has a lovely voice, well suited to Gounod’s requirements, silvery and expressive, with plenty of power. There was a slight risk at times that she could overwhelm the light, flexible tenor of Herbert Zielinski, a young chorister who was tenor lead in the 2021-22 Secondary Students’ Choir and currently sings in the National Youth Choir. But she kept things in check. Zielinski sounded most interesting in duets with the bass soloist, Mark Bobb, an opera singer and teacher: together their voices blended with an unusual timbre.

Conductor Thomas Nikora had the forces of the choir mostly under control, although there was a bit of rough tuning from time to time. If Gounod had been directing operations, he would have asked for a more uniform ensemble sound – and an orchestra to support them. With harps.

This is an interesting work. The text setting is slightly quixotic (or perhaps reflects mid-nineteenth century French practice), with a Kyrie in which tenor and bass do much of the work, a slightly plodding Credo; and the ‘non sum dignus’, which is usually said before the Eucharist, tacked on to the end of the Agnus Dei (it is usually not attached) before a final Amen. The Offertory was an organ solo in this version, with a distinctly spooky quality. I’d love to hear the work performed again with larger forces.

CPE Bach was only nine years old when he heard his father’s Magnificat performedfor the first time, in 1723. Ten years later, Bach revised it and put it into the key of D major. Carl Phillipp Emanuel, the second surviving son of that remarkable family, wrote his own Magnificat in 1749, just in time for the old boy to hear it. But he kept revising it until 1786, which makes it an interesting record of the change from Baroque to Classical style. CPE was a prolific keyboard composer, but the Magnificat is his most substantial choral work.

Last night Cantoris was supported by The Queen’s Closet, an early music ensemble,with Gordon Lehany on first violin, Antonia Grant on second, Samuel Berkahn viola, Tomos Christie cello, and the versatile Jonathan Berkahn on spinet. This was in place of a Baroque orchestra comprising two transverse flutes, two oboes, two horns, bassoon, plus three trumpets and timpani in addition to the strings and continuo. That would have been ruinously expensive at today’s prices, but gorgeous.

Once again, it was interesting to hear CPE ring the changes. He was definitely not a pale imitator of his father. Apart from ‘Deposuit’, which they both gave to the tenor (CPE also adding the alto), the disposition of soloists and chorus was quite different. ‘Quia respexit’ was given to the soprano soloist, who sounded fabulous. It sat very well in her voice. Sadly ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ falls to the tenor soloist, and the young singer managed the runs gamely but struggled with some of the wider leaps. The bass soloist showed what he could do with ‘Fecit potentiam’. Mark Bobb has an operatic sound and the necessary fearlessness. ‘Deposuit’ started with the tenor, with the alto being added.

What a delightful singer Helene Page is, poised and assured, with lovely tone and phrasing. Tenor and alto sang in close harmony, and sounded beautiful together. CPE gave ‘Suscepit Israel’ to the alto, which Helene Page sang beautifully, blending sensitively with the instrumental support.

This Magnificat has relatively little for the choir to do (only the first movement, the fourth, with soprano and alto, and the last two). Moreover, the chorus writing is mostly in four parts, with divisi tenors and basses at times for effect (whereas JS Bach wrote his for SSATB). But it is a most attractive and interesting work, and I would love to hear it again.

New Zealand String Quartet – Soundscapes 2024 – and all good wishes to Monique Lapins

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
NZSQ SOUNDSCAPES

CLAIRE COWAN – Celestia-Terralia
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 14
DEBUSSY – String Quartet

Helene Pohl (violin, leader), Monique Lapins (violin),
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

MOZART- String Quintet in B-flat K.174 Finale
(with Peter Clark, violin, and Monique Lapins, viola)

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

Wednesday 15th May 2024

What a beautiful venue for a concert! St. Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington has played host to the New ZeaIand String Quartet on numerous occasions over the years; and while I’ve found that a seat near the front works ideally well in terms of the music-making’s clarity, there’s also an attractive bloom to the sound which conveys something of the character of the surroundings in truly memorable fashion. And if for whatever reason one arrives with little time to spare and is relegated to a place further from the performers than one would like, then there are both visual and sonic compensations for the proportionate diminution of absolute clarity, even if the sounds which can still reach beyond the heart of the nave are best made by choral voices or the solo organ!

Fortunately I was able to get a seat near the front, close enough to even make out the welcoming remarks of Aislinn Ryan, the Quartet’s general manager, here deprived of a sonorously amplified voice by a vagrant microphone, but still managing to convey suitably heartfelt greetings to all of us. The pre-concert publicity had already alerted most of us present to the occasion’s most piquant feature, this being one of second violinist Monique Lapins’ final appearances with the Quartet after eight years of membership before moving on to other artistic ventures, and the introduction of her replacement, Peter Clark, via a ”special item” at the concert’s end – so the event had a distinction of its own to add on that score.

A programme had been chosen to reflect the Quartet’s wide-ranging strands of musical activity within its particular genre, including a contemporary New Zealand work. a string quartet classic and a mainstay of twentieth-century quartet-writing – and though any from the classical “triumvirate” of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven weren’t included in this survey, amends were made by the inclusion of the “Peter Clark introductory piece” at the concert’s end, more of which to come.

Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s music for me never fails to strike sparks with each encounter; and I was grateful to the NZSQ for giving me the chance to catch up with one of her latest pieces, the visionary “Celestia-Terralia”, a kind of meditation for string quartet on the relationship of our world to the vistas of space through which we ceaselessly move, stunningly rendered in sonic terms by this other-worldly exploration of life’s extremes.

In their introduction to the work the players mentioned the composer’s initial fascination with the historic 1957 Russian space probe that sent a live dog into space to orbit the earth, a venture which was then motivated as much by political gain as scientific advancement in what had become a “space race” between the USSR and the USA. (The dog, who was known as “Laika”, actually made several orbits of the earth, but within a few hours sadly died as a result of overheating in the spacecraft.)

At the beginning the sounds presented a kind of technological minimalist character of beeps, blips and other kinds of warning signals, setting up a tangibly propulsive character that suggested some kind of voyage, with an occasional legato-like phrase that could have signified a rather more living, organic presence! These chattering pulses then became wave-like motions, the harmonic-like timbres intensifying a hypnotic other-worldly effect. Again the trajectories suddenly changed, reverting to the opening figures but occasionally breaking without warning into almost “square-dancing quatrains”, everything scampering onwards until the music’s energies finally seemed to ‘cut adrift” and float, punctuated by huge viola-drops of sound and scampering ‘cello-pizzicati mutterings – from then on, the piece with its extraordinarily spacious harmonies took on an elegiac and trance-like character with an intense, austere beauty, haunted by an underlying sense of loss…..

Somewhat more earthly than all of this, but in no sense less epic or emotionally far-reaching was the programme’s next item, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth String Quartet, dedicated by the composer to the cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, a member of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that gave the premiere performances of all but the first and last of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets. It was the last of a set of four quartets (Nos 11-14) each of which was dedicated to a member of the ensemble, in this case featuring the ’cello in a pivotal role throughout.

After a kind of “Once upon a time” introduction by the viola, the cello took the music’s reins and brought in a droll playfulness, realised here with gusto by Rolf Gjelsten, and taken up by the violins, the music’s characterisations here physically enhanced by three of the group’s “standing to play”, an NZSQ trademark I’ve always relished! Throughout, the two violins gladly followed the cello’s dance-like framework, but as well occasionally pushed their timbres into agitato mode, goading “cello and viola into responsive bouts of the same – but then I loved Gillian Ansell’s viola impassioned “reading of the riot act” solo which prompted both cello and violins to take up the dancing playfulness once more! And with what eloquence did the cello here combine recitative and dance with which to gather up its companions for some jogtrot concordance at the movement’s end!

Helene Pohl’s beautiful violin solo began the second movement, supported by her colleagues and encouraged to extend the instrument’s reverie as well as beautifully descanting the cello’s entry, furthering what had become something of an extended duo for the pair, piquantly decorated by tender pizzicato from second violin and viola! When all four finally joined bowed forces again it was Monique Lapins’ instrument’s turn to shine, further in keeping with the dark beauties of what we had heard thus far in this deeply-felt movement. After further musings from the first violin, a pizzicato passage suddenly became animated (sounding the notes which spell the affectionate form of the name of the work’s dedicatee, “Seryozha” (for Sergei Shirinsky) and the Allegretto was thus made to spring almost miraculously from these relatively comatose soundscapes!

Suddenly here were raw, stridently burgeoning utterances being tossed around between the instruments rather like a twelve-tone exercise with “attitude”, searing and sharp-edged, variously in stepwise, triplet and running aspect before subsiding, the cello quietly quoting the opening of Katerina’s aria “Seryozha, khoroshiy moy” from Act 4 of the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and both second and first violins ruminating over their exhausting troubles! After all this had run its course, how blessed were those calmly stoic concluding phrases! What a work and what a performance!

This left still another quartet masterpiece to work its spell upon our sensibilities (a cup that runneth over!) – in our somewhat fraught state as listeners by this time (in the wake of the Shostakovich work) I felt it would be such a joy to relish a piece of music whose qualities put one in mind of those piano concertos referred to by Mozart in a letter to his father as “works that both connoisseurs and ordinary people would equally enjoy, the former because they would both delight in and understand the music’s many felicities, and the latter because they would enjoy the music equally well, but without fully knowing why!” I was certainly anticipating the full tactile enjoyment of Debussy’s sound-world in his only String Quartet and certainly wasn’t disappointed!

What arresting contrasts we were straightaway presented with in this performance by the point and focus of the opening phrases of the work and the subsequent swirling masses of finely-crafted diaphanous detailing which followed! My proximity to the quartet enabled me to appreciate as much the beautifully ambient support of the middle voices surrounding the principle lines, whatever their source. The players all “sounded” detail in marvellously pliant and spontaneous tones, everything seeming naturally analogue and organic, as if we were all swimming irresistibly through the conduits of a living organism, with sounds seeming to coalesce and dissolve at will, culminating in a wonderfully fashioned-on-the-spot unison!

Just as beguiling at the scherzo’s beginning were the plethora of pizzicato which tumbled over one another with what seemed like infectious delight at the cross-rhythms and their interaction, then contrasting these pin-point accuracies with ear-catching “whisperings’, mere slivers and shavings of tone swept into almost ghostly unanimities punctuated with sforzandi and echoes of uncanny laughter at the insouciance of it all. The third movement, Andatino, doucement expressif, began with a brief solo from Monique Lapins, its beauty uncannily replicated by Gillian Ansell’s viola, all with gorgeously recessed muted tones and played “con amore”. How disarming it feels when hearing such music played with the kind of absorption that “unlocks” an impulse or memory one knows without being able to name! The beautiful viola-playing and the accompanying modal-like chordings here put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music for similar forces, the flow of emotion as spontaneous as was its hushed recession at the end….

As for the finale, we enjoyed its wistful launching by the ‘cello into a drifting, peripatetic world, whose sounds seemed inclined towards melting and merging, rather than forward movement – but the players then insinuated, goaded and eventually tumbled the music into vigorous trajectories with its unashamed Cesar Franck-like repetitions, regaling us with oceans of ebb-and-flow before plunging into the return of the work’s opening theme – such a full-blooded and attention-grabbing moment! It seemed by this time we were so transported that, when brought to us by a precipitate coda, Helene Pohl’s final violin ascent to those final chords was both thrilling and tinged with regret on our part that there suddenly wasn’t any more! And what more could one ask of a performance?

I mentioned earlier the exclusion of any music by the accepted “string quartet triumvirate” of composers in the concert – but there was actually a scheduled “extra” piece which in terms of musical content almost compensated entirely for the neglect – this was a movement from one of Mozart’s String Quintets, chosen by the Quartet to feature both the group’s departee, Monique Lapins, and the newcomer, Peter Clark, thereby merging the bitter-sweet process of farewelling and welcoming into a musically-satisfying whole. So there actually WAS some more after the Debussy, the finale of Mozart’s String Quintet in B-flat K.174, played by the ensemble with all of the spirit, feeling and skill of execution that one might expect from these players and within their “moment in time”. The NZSQ has a few of these concerts left in various venues around the country – anybody within coo-ee of any of these occasions would be well-advised on several counts to enjoy what many of us obviously regarded as a very special event.

It remains to say “Vale, Monique Lapins! – Waimarie pai! It has been an honour!”

A Midday Education in the Organ, at St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace

Organ Recital at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace
Organist – Paul Rosoman

Review by Maya Field

J.S. Bach – Alla Breve in D Major, BWV589
Bjarne Sløgedal – Variations on a Norwegian Folk Tune
Heinrich Scheidemann – Alleluja Laudem dicite Deo Nostro
J.S. Bach – Two Choral Preludes: Cantata BWV22, Cantata BWV75
Marcel Dupre – Lamento
Dieterich Buxtehude – Praeludium in G Minor, BuxWV150

Lunchtime at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington
Wednesday, 15th May,

Nothing can prepare for how the organ sounds in person. No matter how many times you watch Phantom of the Opera, or listen to Bach, you don’t realise how much the organ surrounds you in sound until you’re sitting in a room with one. At least, this was the case for me. To me, the organ means the masked Phantom and loud, heavy chords that ring through churches. This was partly true, as it was at St Andrews on the Terrace, but I didn’t realise the full range of the organ until Paul Rosoman opened with Bach’s Alla Breve (D Major).

The audience was seated below Rosoman, with his back turned to us. This is quite unique from other recitals, as you can’t look to the musician’s face for clues of enjoyment or feeling. Instead, it’s all in the body language of the shoulder and the back of his head. I probably should’ve realised this before the concert, but I didn’t quite put two and two together until he sat with his back turned to us.

For an organ recital, Bach is a fantastic way to open the programme. The organ underpinned much of Bach’s career, and he was primarily considered an organist in the 18th century. While he composed brilliant works for a variety of instruments, including other keyboard instruments, the organ is Bach’s home instrument. At least, that’s the way his pieces feel. The Alla Breve introduced us to the programme very nicely, as it showcased the weight and beauty of the organ. Rosoman had a perfect balance of all parts, which is crucial for the classic Bach counterpoint.

Bjarne Sløgedal is a more obscure composer. Norwegian, lived from 1927-2014, an organist and composer, studied at Julliard, was an organist in Kristiansand Cathedral for 45 years. That’s the summary of his Wikipedia page, which I had to google translate from Norwegian to English, so hopefully I didn’t get incorrect facts from a poor translation.

This was when I realised how little I knew about the organ. It’s absolutely beautiful. I didn’t realise that the organ could take on such a soft, almost wind-like quality. Sløgedal’s Variations on a Norwegian Folk Tune felt like a walk through a forest. There were slight pauses in between sections, as (I’m assuming) stops were changed, or pages were turned. It started with a soft gasp, then a full gust. An airy breeze filtered in, then wind began to build to a gorgeous and rich howl.

The programme went onto Heinrich Scheidemann, one of the important predecessors to organists like Bach and Buxtehude (who will be played later on in the programme). The Alleluja Laudem was originally played on an organ twice the size of the organ in St Andrew’s. Rosoman explained how he had to alter and adjust different stops to achieve the same effects as Scheidemann’s organ. I admit, I had to look up what stops were after the concert: they’re the knobs on the organ that alter the sound quality of the organ. Rosoman’s alterations were very good, and the piece felt very balanced, with no overpowering or underwhelming parts of the piece.

We then returned to Bach, with two Choral Preludes. The first was “Ertot uns dutch dein Gute” (Mortify us by Thy goodness, Cantata BWV 22), which Bach auditioned (successfully) with for the role of Cantor in Leipzig. This cantata felt like a soft walk to a countryside chapel. Quite an idealised image from me, I know, but I can’t help it. As an organ-layman, I have to resort to some nice language and images to make up for my lacking knowledge.

The second was “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (Whate’er my God ordains is right, Cantata BWV 75), another important piece in Bach history, as this was the cantata he presented for his first service In Liepzig. I particularly enjoyed the gorgeous counterpoint near the end, classic Bach.

Dupre’s Lamento was my favourite. I listened to it on repeat immediately, and have added it to my playlist of favourite classical pieces. The piece was dedicated to friends of Dupre, whose son had died at three years old. There were two themes of the piece: a quiet theme, and a childish theme, both of which had the deep anguish of the parent’s grief. The quiet theme was melancholic and beautiful. The childish theme was haunting. It was grief itself, and Rosoman understood this. There was a cacophony of ripping-heart-out-anguish in loud sequences, followed by a final counterpoint of both themes. I remember thinking that I could’ve cried. Rosoman did a beautiful job at such a devastating piece.

We finished with Buxtehude’s Praeludium (G Minor), the piece that Bach famously walked 280 miles to hear. I understand why he would’ve walked so far, but perhaps because I was so moved by Dupre, I don’t know if I would’ve done the same as Bach. The piece had three fugues which grew in animation as they went on. The first was mild, then it grew more animated, then the third grew to a “wildly extravagant” finish (Rosoman’s words). It was a great way to finish the programme, and a fantastic performance from Rosoman.

As a performer, Rosoman is wonderful. He’s an expert at the organ, and takes time between pieces to explain important parts of the pieces and the instrument. He’s affable and a great showman. Even though I couldn’t see his face while he played, you felt that he was feeling the same emotion as you while he played.

The lunchtime concerts at St Andrews are a great way to share classical music to the public. The concerts are free, take an hour, and showcase a great range of music and instruments. This organ recital, for me, is a great example of how important these lunchtime concerts are. I went into St Andrews only knowing the organ in terms of Phantom of the Opera, but I left absolutely enamoured with Lamento and a new appreciation for the instrument. If you can spare the hour between 12 and 1pm on a Wednesday, I strongly urge you to spend it at St Andrews on the Terrace.