Musical voyages to distant places – Jenny Wollerman with the New Zealand String Quartet

Secrets of Sea and Space – a New Zealand Festival concert

Arnold Schönberg – String Quartet No. 2 (1908)
Alban Berg – Lyric Suite (1926)
Ross Harris – The Abiding Tides (2010)

The New Zealand String Quartet with soprano Jenny Wollerman

Saint Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street, Wellington

Tuesday 10th March 2020

On Tuesday evening a very large congregation of music-followers assembled in the church of Saint Mary of the Angels to ascend into the stars and probe the depths of the sea. Saint Mary herself – in her capacity as Stella Maris (star of the sea) – seemed a well-suited hostess and patron for such an endeavour. Many young people were also present (noted here for the benefit of Radio New Zealand’s senior management). The concert, a highlight of the New Zealand Festival, offered us an opportunity to expand our listening horizons and engage with some rarely performed works that all combine, in some way, a vocal line with the established genre of the string quartet. The New Zealand String Quartet, together with soprano Jenny Wollerman, presented this concert with great energy, strength, and concentration, leading the listener through the intricate musical design of the works and contouring the musical gestures that make up their striking originality and expressiveness. The group’s approach to performance succeeded in drawing out the dark sonorities and sensuality of works that otherwise have a reputation for their cerebral rigour and association with prickly theoretical terms such as “dodecaphonic”, “atonal”, or “serialism”. Sometimes, however, in louder and intense passages, the performers’ efforts to make the music’s complex interwoven lines more transparent were compromised by the resonant acoustics of the church.

Arnold Schönberg’s ground-breaking second string quartet was first performed in Vienna in December 1908, provoking a riot that was even reported in New York newspapers as “an uproar such as no concert hall in the Austrian capital ever before had known”. The poems Litany (Litanei) and Rapture (Entrückung) that feature in the quartet’s third and fourth movements are taken from a cycle of poems by Stefan George who at the time was a distinctly contemporary voice in German poetry, thought of by his contemporaries as a kind of prophet and priest for whom poetry was a disciplined, performing art with a particular incantatory power. The quartet’s opening two instrumental movements were presented with great command and attention to detail, the players as a group clearly articulating Schönberg’s extended harmonic language, bold rhythmic gestures and making the most of the second movement’s reference to the old and sarcastic Viennese folksong “My dear Augustin, all is lost!” Jenny Wollerman then joined the quartet for the third and fourth movements. George’s poem Litany replicates the church liturgy consisting of a line of nine or ten syllables with a break between the fifth and the sixth (for example: Sacta Maria / ora pro nobis; Tief ist die Trauer / die mich umdüstert). The church setting for the concert contributed to the effect too: what better place to hear a litany than in a Catholic church! The climax of the movement occurs in the Litany’s last imploring phrase “ease me of passion!” (“nimm mir die Liebe!”) which is portrayed very strikingly in the music by a precipitously scary downward leap in the vocal part of over two octaves. Jenny Wollerman performed this leap with great athletic prowess. The ‘secrets of space’, from which the concert took its title, then became apparent as the fourth movement began with its very quiet, weightless rising figures in the violins that eerily adumbrate a new atmosphere. Lift off occurred gently with the entry of the soprano voice: “I sense the air of another planet”, she sings, announcing the quartet’s entry into an ‘extraterrestrial’ tonality-free soundscape. The visions of Stefan George’s poem Rapture correspond to the way the music liberates itself from the gravitational pull of any tonal centre. Jenny Wollerman sang George’s verses with marvellously ecstatic intensity: “I am dissolving into sound” (ich löse mich in tönen) she exclaimed, triggering a collective frisson in the audience. Perhaps in this moment, we were no longer concert-goers, but a grouping of devotees, converts, and disciples, sitting there mesmerised as she described her ascension, higher and higher into new ethereal  realms into which she was then completely and rapturously absorbed as “a spark of the holy fire” and as “a resonance of the holy voice.” After lifting poetry and music to new heights of “rapture”, Schönberg concludes the movement and the quartet (somewhat bizarrely) with a prosaic F-sharp major chord. Despite this offending major chord, the applause was, as to be expected, wild and as rapturous as ever.

Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite has been described as a “latent opera” in six acts, arranged in a fan-like formation that unfolds in a dramatic crescendo. Before playing the work, members of the quartet introduced the latent opera’s cast of characters and the general gist of its story (typical operatic themes of an impossible romance, unstilled longing, obsession, torment and despair). In the 1970s an American musicologist discovered a hidden vocal line in the composer’s draft of the work’s final movement – Largo desolato, finding it to be a setting of Stefan George’s German translation of Charles Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi, the poet’s own dark version of Psalm 130. The six movements outline a psychographic curve of singularly powerful and contrasting emotional states. The New Zealand String Quartet masterfully showed how the Lyric Suite captures and expresses Berg’s intensification of moods in so many different ways: by the lasciviously descending harmonic progressions in the Andante amoroso for example; the grotesque scuffling in the Allegro misterioso; and the frenzied angular gestures of the Presto delirando. Jenny Wollerman joined the quartet for the Largo desolato to sing the secret libretto of the latent opera’s final act. Here the voice and the quartet convincingly conveyed the opera’s main protagonist’s (that is, the composer’s) sense of hopelessness, renunciation and desolation.

Ross Harris’s work The Abiding Tides is comprised of eight settings of poems by Vincent O’Sullivan mainly about ships sinking at sea. Although the work was introduced to the audience as relating specifically to the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the Northern Atlantic in 1912, the themes of sea voyage and shipwreck resonate very strongly much closer to home: 2,300 vessels have met their demise in New Zealand waters since the 1790s. Our forebears too all risked long voyages across vast oceans in canoes and sailing ships and burials at sea were frequent. O’Sullivan’s poems do not share the emphasis of Stefan George’s verses on form and metre, drawing more on qualities of prose poetry and the use of metaphors and imagery. The music is programmatic, following and reflecting the sentiments, images and (often very bleak) narratives of the poems. The quartet, with Jenny Wollerman at the helm, navigated the settings excellently, again capturing and conveying the mood of each. With the instrumental interludes between each setting the overall effect of the work was one of an extended rhapsody, floating, sinking, looking up at the moon and the sky (sometimes from beneath the water), watching the way light glitters on the ocean’s surface, or gazing at the ever present horizon. Harris covers a range of idioms in these settings from free canonic forms, waltz and Webernesque textures. It was very helpful as a listener to have the printed words: the acoustic of the church made it difficult at times to hear the sung words clearly. The work’s final text setting “Nox perpetua”, echoing Schönberg’s Litanei and Berg’s De profundis, was almost like a liturgical chant about the impenetrable darkness at the ocean floor.  It reminded me of the final images in Jane Campion’s celebrated 1993 New Zealand film The Piano where she cites the lines of Scottish poet Thomas Hood: “There is a silence where hath been no sound, / There is a silence where no sound may be, / In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea.”

The silence at the end was banished by continuous, loud and enthusiastic applause from an enraptured audience. On leaving the church, some audience members commented on the church’s bare wooden pews and how dreadfully uncomfortable they are. Uncomfortable pews are usually a specialist feature of Protestant churches, I thought, but even they often have upholstery nowadays: Beata Virgo Maria, audi verba mea.

NZSO, Gorecki and Ponifasio/MAU share singularly successful juxtaposing of utterly disparate creations, of profound common human vulnerabilities

New Zealand Festival of the Arts

“Chosen and Beloved”: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi with MAU Wahine
Created by Lemi Ponifasio

Performers: MAU Wāhine
In white: Kahumako Rameka and Ria Te Uira Paki
In black: Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, Kasina Campbell, Terri Crawford, Rangipo Ihakara-Wallace, Anitopapa Kopua, Taiahotea Paki-Hill

Gorecki: Symphony No 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), with soprano Racha Tizk

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 February, 7:30 pm

It might have been slightly unusual to open a festival with a work (two works?) whose subject was the nature of woman, childbirth, even death, and dealing indirectly with one of the most terrible episodes in history.

However, it drew attention to the way in which this festival has been created and conceived. Substantially put together by three leading figures in the performing arts, ‘Guest Curators’, carefully chosen with attention to racial and cultural balance, and sheer imaginative and creative genius.

This concert was the inspiration of Lemi Ponifasio, ‘director and choreographer’. Though not a name very familiar to music audiences in New Zealand, he’s been involved for many years in performance activities that don’t match ordinary categories at international arts festivals, for example, at festivals at Avignon, Marseille, the Theater Der Welt and the Ruhr Triennale in Germany, at the Venice Biennale, for the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi; in Noumea, and Sydney; and even an appearance at the 2012 festival in Wellington (which I didn’t see).

[You may be interested (I was) in the surprising history of MAU’s activities around the world: I copy an article in an appendix at the end.]

The Maori ‘ceremony’ from MAU Wahine
When the audience was allowed into the auditorium at 7:15 it was greeted at once with the performance, though there were no sounds. The stage itself delivered an immediate message: the entire back wall and choir stalls was shrouded by black curtains and a white sheet covered a four metre, or so, width of the stage extending from side to side in front of the empty orchestra seats. An array of rocks was scattered over it.

A woman in white, with long black hair (Kahumako Rameka), was walking very slowly from side to side, and she began to deliver a long lamenting whaikorero (a Karakia – about protection), about her origins, the different stages of birth and re-birth.

Soon two black-clad women appeared at the foot of aisles on either side of the balcony; they intoned first one then the other, though amplification made it difficult to tell who was singing, especially after five others appeared on the stage – that didn’t matter, but amplification removes that important aspect. However, the voices created a transcendent, ethereal effect that sought to avoid literal or precise understanding.

These were MAU Wahine, Ponifasio’s dance theatre company (‘Mau’ is the Samoan word meaning ‘the declaration of the truth’). For some time it bothered me that I could not understand their words, or at least their drift, but eventually I concluded that the women and a child in the arms was simply a reflection, or an anticipation, of the Gorecki composition, perhaps encompassing the experience of the loss of a child in awful circumstances. Gorecki said that his symphony was an evocation of the ties between mother and child, and I sensed that that might also have been the best way of interpreting the Mau ‘ceremony’ that had preceded it.

These were my own surmises, but I found myself taking it all very seriously, and I decided it would be useful to me as well as others if I could elaborate the meaning of what was happening.

So I contacted the Festival, asking whether members of the company could help my understanding (I could do this, not having a tight dead-line to adhere to). Very helpful information reached me later on Monday. I’m indebted to MAU Wahine for responding to my request.

I continue, with the benefit of their help.

When eventually a second white-clad woman appeared (Ria Te Uira Paki) with a baby in her arms, the message, expressed through their lamentations at the suffering and exploitation of women, chimed with the essential message of Gorecki’s music.

Ria Te Uira Paki delivered “a Pātere (chant), specifically Māreikura, perhaps the embodiment of the female essence. The word Māreikura can be translated or described as in all of its forms. The Pātere recites the genealogical connection to seven pro-dominant female entities within Māoridom and how they imbued their qualities within wāhine Māori. It talks of their journeys and connections being interwoven into our own feminine beings. It is a reminder of the feminine essence of Papatuanuku our terrestrial mother and the unbroken connection of the umbilical cord that  bonds us all the cosmic divine. A power, a strength and the beauty that we all hold and can conjure from within.”

My only uncertain criticism might have been of the length of this creation, with its quite protracted expanses of chant that ninety percent of the audience could not understand, even though its likely significance could be guessed at. Was it so different from the wordless 80 minutes of a Bruckner symphony or an extended liturgical work in Latin whose literal text is not understood in detail? In the end I dismissed this thought as a reasonable criticism.

The Gorecki Symphony
The words ‘Chosen and Beloved’ are taken from the first line of the first poem used in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

But first, some of Ponifasio’s words:
“In the ceremony of Chosen and Beloved, we greet and embrace those who have gone before us, and prepare to welcome those who are about to join us. We acknowledge the difficulties of the past, share our sufferings and hopes, and with deep empathy begin to construct together the world we wish for ourselves, and for the new generation.”

Gorecki is recorded as not wanting to write a symphony ‘about war’, dealing with the horrors of war; and so in no way does he display in this work, bitterness or hatred of the perpetrators of the three events that inspire the symphony’s three movements. He wanted his work to be heard as three independent laments, and not really like a symphony at all.

The famous words of the second movement were found on the wall of a Gestapo prison at Zakopane in southern Poland. The words used in the two other movements also had their origin in poems that touched, not on the horrors of war or the Holocaust, but on mothers’ grief for the loss of a son, probably in the Silesian Uprisings in 1919-21, and for the third movement, words from a folk song in which Mary speaks to Jesus dying on the cross.

Reading about the reactions to its original performances in the late 70s and even after the huge success of the famous Dawn Upshaw recording in 1991, the critical nastiness that was uttered comes as a surprise now, when devotion to the sterility of the avant-garde, dissonance, and serialism has largely disappeared. I recall the anger vented on some of the reviews I wrote at that time, unappreciative as I was of the slavishly disagreeable music composition students were expected to write then.

Gorecki himself had rejected the dictates of the avant-garde Inquisition; and it’s almost a surprise to observe how, in many ways there’s been  a return to the idea that music needs to engage audiences.

There’s much to be fascinated and moved by in the work: first, though the orchestra is quite large, with quadruple flutes, clarinets and bassoons, horns and trombones the range of instruments is limited: no oboes or trumpets, no timpani or percussion. Each string section is in two parts and often operate separately. One’s attention is drawn to that at the beginning as the first almost inaudible sound is from the double basses, taking about 15 minutes to move through all the strings and a sequence of keys each in a different mode. That sequence was followed in reverse before the soprano entered.

Racha Rizk is a Syrian with an attractive, ethereal soprano voice, that was beautifully suited to the lamenting quality of Gorecki’s music which in turn reflected the emotions of each of the verses.

She sang in a sort of isolation from the front of the balconies nearest the stage: first on the right, then on the left, and for the third movement, from a high, obscure platform in the middle of the black curtain that covered the entire wall behind the orchestra. That separation of voice from the orchestra meant that the balance between the two varied with each movement and according to ones’ seat in the auditorium. That is no criticism: merely an observation.

What might have been a bother for some was the array of fluorescent tubes suspended above the front and rear of the stage which probably affected the visibility of the stage for those in the centre of the balcony.

I was interested to read about Rizk’s background: Syrian classical music performers do not flood the concert halls and opera houses. The programme note included this (to me) interesting item:

After her exile in France due to the war in Syria, Racha is continuing her concerts in Europe with orchestras including the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra and ORNINA Orchestra, performing Syrian symphonic compositions in concert halls including the Berliner Konzerthaus, Bremen’s Die Glucke, Berlin Philharmonie and Athens Megaron.

In the hands of Kristjan Järvi the orchestra was electrifying in the extraordinarily restrained and spiritual passages (and there are really no other kinds of music in it). There’s a full hour of music, and it cast a spell over the audience, so that at the end when the entire back wall turned into a vivid cascade, the audience remained subdued.

The audience, uncertain about the end, clapped before the water ceased to flow and the lights came up, breaking off as they sensed that it was emotionally unfinished. So they clapped again when the real ending was signalled and the conductor rested his baton.


Appendix 1

Lemi Ponifasio / ‘MAU Jerusalem Inside Us’

From the programme booklet for the Jerusalem concert on the following evening, which was more complete than the notes for Chosen and Beloved.

Lemi Ponifasio founded MAU in 1995 working with diverse cultures and communities around the world. His collaborators are people from all walks of life, performing in factories, remote villages, opera houses, schools, marae, castles, galleries and stadiums. Mau is the Samoan word meaning the declaration of the truth.

Lemi Ponifasio is acclaimed internationally for his radical work as a choreographer, stage director and designer, and for his collaborations with many communities.

The projects have included fully staged operas, theatre, dance, exhibitions, community forums and festivals in more than 30 countries.

He has presented his creations with MAU in many places including Festival d’Avignon, Lincoln Center New York, BAM New York, Ruhrtriennale, LIFT Festival London, Edinburgh International Festival, Theater der Welt, Festival de Marseille, Theatre de la Ville Paris, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, Holland Festival, Luminato Festival Toronto, Vienna Festival, Santiago a Mil Chile, the Venice Biennale and in the Pacific region.

His recent works include Love To Death (2020) with MAU Mapuche, Santiago Chile; KANAKA (2019) with Theatre Du Kanaky, New Caledonia; Mausina with MAU Wāhine for 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (2018) and Standing In Time (2017) with MAU Wāhine; Die Gabe Der Kinder (2017) with children and community of Hamburg; Ceremony of Memories (2016 and 2017) with MAU Mapuche of Chile; Recompose (2016) with MAU Wāhine and Syrian women for Festival Herrenhausen, Hanover; Lagimoana Installation (2015) for the Venice Biennale 56th Visual Arts Exhibition; Apocalypsis, Toronto (2015); I AM: Mapuche, Chile (2015) and I AM for the 100th Anniversary of WW1 (2014), which premiered at Festival d’Avignon.

Other major international performance tours by Lemi Ponifasio and MAU include The Crimson House (2014), Stones In Her Mouth (2013), the opera Prometheus by Carl Orff (2012), Le Savali: Berlin (2011), Birds With Skymirrors (2010), Tempest: Without A Body (2008), Requiem (2006) and Paradise (2005).


Appendix 2

From The New Zealand Herald

From an interview with Lemi Ponifasio before the performance at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012

Birds With Skymirrors …..

“Some people think I am God, some people think I am the devil,” says choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, whose Birds With Skymirrors will cast his usual controversial spell, this time over Wellington’s St James Theatre for two nights of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Ponifasio and his dance theatre company Mau – which he prefers to speak of in terms of “community”, just as he repels the label of “performance” for his work – are far more feted in Europe than in New Zealand. Mau is a regular highlight of all the great arts festivals, biennales, triennales and “festspieles” of Europe, but it will be his first time at the New Zealand festival.

“Well, well,” he says, with the sly, characteristic smile than might mean amusement, cynicism – or pain.

The title Birds With Skymirrors was inspired by the apocalyptic sight of frigate birds flying over the ocean off Tarawa Island, in the Pacific, carrying glittering pieces of black plastic waste in their beaks, the ripped plastic looking like liquid mirrors.

The momentous issue of climate change, and the global discussions and negotiations about the future of the planet, were already on Ponifasio’s mind, and a subject he wanted to work with. “The frigate birds provided the symbolic image,” he says. “Birds have long been attached to our desire to be free.”

The resulting work, a powerful reflection on our connection with our environment, expressed through dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory, premiered in Europe in 2010.

Formerly based at the Corban Estate in West Auckland, where he also regularly held the extraordinary Mau Forums, Ponifasio declares himself a failure in that he no longer has a home in New Zealand, the Pacific heart-spring and source of inspiration for all he does. “I have had to go international to survive,” he says.

Ponifasio is back in New Zealand briefly, between extensive European engagements, to find a new base, probably in South Auckland. The constant travelling between New Zealand and Europe is difficult for his immediate family and for his Mau family. And expensive.

“I am working on it, it will come,” he says. “The nature of current work in New Zealand has been that of a production line that I don’t fit. Europe has a bigger capacity to take on something provocative, something more than just arts and crafts and the entertainment industry.”

Born and raised in Samoa until he was 15, he came to New Zealand to complete his formal education, living in a Catholic priory until he was 21. But it is the experience of living in the natural world far more than human-made cultures and religious ideologies that inform Ponifasio’s unique voice. It is a voice that reflects the primal drama of the rhythms of the earth, the cycles of light and dark, life and death, rain and sun, the moon, the cosmos and mankind’s vulnerability, struggles, rituals, strange ceremonies and surrender within.

“To negotiate this exchange in life, Samoan parents tell their children the most important motto: to teu le va – to tender the space, to reverence the space, to be the space, to beautify the space, to embellish the space,” he says. “This is relational space, consciousness, a cosmological relationship with all existence. We call this ‘va’.”

Mau Forum 2010 took place at Schloss Charlottenberg, a historic palace in Berlin, and illustrates Ponifasio’s va in action.

“Not long ago, not far from this place, the people of Berlin exhibited Samoan people, like animals, in their zoo,” Ponifasio said on that occasion, “and not long ago, the people of Berlin came all the way down to Samoa and dominated and colonised the Samoan people.

“So it is very important that today we welcome and host the people of Berlin with respect, ceremony, theatre and art and share a meal, to allow for the clearing of space and the harmonising of spirit – so the work can begin.”

Ponifasio aims, he says, for “transformation”, which is equal parts prayer and political activism.

His work Tempest: Without a Body featured New Zealand’s own “face of terror” Tama Iti and terrorist suspect (since exonerated) Ahmed Zaoui.

“I make work for those who love this kind of work,” he says, “and for those who don’t like it, it is something to talk about. Art is not enough. I don’t want to make myself an artist. It has to be the path of love, the path of activism and its origins have to be in the community.”

Mau’s most recent work, Le Savali: Berlin, prompted French newspaper Le Figaro to propose Lemi Ponifasio as “the new miracle” on the choreographic landscape.

Ponifasio returns to Germany this year to produce his first opera, Carl Orff’s Prometheus, for the Ruhr Triennial 2012.


Martinborough Music Festival – an overview of a delightful feast of chamber music

Martinborough Music Festival
An overview

For Friday 27 September see Lindis Taylor’s review

Saturday 28 September 2019, 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano; Wilma Smith – violin; Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello
Brahms: Viola Sonata No 2 in Eb, Op 120
Brahms: Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor, Op 101
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C Minor, Op 15

Saturday 28 September 2019, 7:30 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Songs: Between Darkness and Light (see review from Charlotte Wilson)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956
(See review of this concert by Charlotte Wilson)

Sunday 29 September 2019 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Yuka Eguchi – violin, Amy Brookman – violin, Alan Molina – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Wilma Smith – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Brahms: Theme & Variations for Piano in D Minor, Op 18
Brahms: String Sextet No 1 in Bb Major, Op 18
Mendelssohn: Octet in Eb Major, Op 20

Martinborough Town Hall

Martinborough is a charming, tastefully preserved and restored little country town 65 km from Wellington. Running a Music Festival there, featuring some of  New Zealand’s finest musicians is an incredibly ambitious project. The festival, held this year over three days, 27-29 September, was their third. It featured Michael Houstoun, piano, Jenny Wollerman, soprano, Wilma Smith, violin and viola, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, Yuka Egochi, Amy Bookman and Alan Molina, violins, Christopher Moore, viola,  Mathias Balzat and Ken Ichinose, cellos. The 4 concerts offered a broad range of music, from piano solo and a selection of songs, to a large string ensemble of a sextet and an octet. It is impossible to single out a highlight, for some it was the moving Schubert Quintet, for others the heartfelt romantic Brahms Sextet No. 1 in Bb  Op. 18 stood out. This work is by a young Brahms deeply in love with Clara Schumann. Others appreciated the variety of songs by Britten, Debussy Fauré, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Barber, sung by Jenny Wollerman, noted for her expressive interpretation of new and less familiar works.

The wealth of music included familiar works, Scarlatti Sonatas, played by Michael Houstoun, Chopin’s Cello Sonata, played by Matthias Balzat, and to crown the opening night, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Wilma Smith.

The next concert featured two late Brahms works, the second of his viola sonatas, in Eb Major Op. 120, one of his last compositions, originally written for the clarinet, played by Christopher Moore, with a gorgeous rich sound. Then came the Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, one of a group of compositions Brahms completed after his last symphony, works that are more concentrated, less expansive than his earlier chamber music compositions. The final work on the programme was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, one of the great masterpieces of the French romantic chamber music repertoire, a work of overwhelming beauty.

The final concert was music by the youthful Brahms and the even younger Mendelssohn. Michael Houstoun played Brahms’ piano arrangement of the Theme and Variations of his String Sextet No 1, which Brahms had arranged for Clara Schumann. This was a foretaste of the Sextet No. 1 in Bb Op. 18, played with restrained passion and good taste by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Yuka Eguchi, violins, Christopher Moore and this time Wilma Smith on the viola, and Matthias Balzat and Ken Ichinose cello.

To end the festival on a happy cheerful rousing note, these musicians were joined by Amy Brookman and Alan Molina, in Mendelssohn’s Octet in Eb Major, Op. 20. Mendelssohn wrote this when he was only sixteen, yet it remained one of his most popular and enduring compositions. It evokes an enchanted ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits derived from the young Mendelssohn’s reading of Shakespeare and Goethe.

The Martinborough Music Festival was a feast of good music. Ed Allen and his organising committee are to be commended on their vision, their courage to take risks, and on  flawless management to ensure that everything went smoothly. They were rewarded by full houses in the beautifully restored Town Hall and a large appreciative audience.

Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson; the second installment, of Monday and Tuesday reviews

Part II of Middle C’s coverage of the Festival

From Monday 4 Feb to Tuesday 5, evening

Mozart on the organ, by Douglas Mews

Mozart: Suite in C, K 399
Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je Maman’, K 265
Eine kleine Gigue in G K 574
Andante in F, K 616
Fantasy and Fugue in C, K 394
Rondo alla Turka, from sonata, K 331

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 10 am

Perhaps the decision to celebrate the restoration of the organ in the Nelson School of Music took a slightly eccentric course, by programming some pieces by Mozart. For while Mozart is known to have enjoyed playing, especially improvising on, organs wherever he encountered them, he wrote scarcely anything specifically for the organ.

The Andante in F, K 616, written a short time before he died, is the only music that he wrote for the organ and that was for a mechanical organ or ‘musical clock’. All the other pieces that Mews played were arrangements that were felt to have some connection or relationship with the sort of music that might have suited the organ.

Douglas Mews began by speaking interestingly about his approach to Mozart and his tenuous relationship with the organ.

The Suite in C was one of the few Mozart pieces, this one for keyboard, that was modelled on the Baroque suite; it’s referred to as ‘in the style of Handel’ in some references. It consists of three movements: Overture, Allemande and Courante and there is evidence that he would have added further movements of the kind that were common in the baroque suite, such as Bach used for the orchestral, cello and violin suites:  Sarabande, Minuet, Gigue, and perhaps a Passepied, Bourée, Badinerie or Réjouissance.

But then Mews said that for time reasons, he would play only the Overture of the Suite. The overture was not very long and it did seem curious that he refrained from playing the other two movements which together are only a little longer.  He used strongly contrasted registrations for the Overture, and I was particularly struck by the timbre of one of the lower register stops which was unusually dense: I’d call it nasal; in fact, the sounds seemed almost too varied. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mozart had absorbed the style and spirit of the composers of two generations before him. It could certainly have passed for Handel, if not Bach… with a perfectly good fugue that took over after a couple of minutes.

Ah, vous dirai-je Maman
Mews chose fairly light registrations for Mozart’s familiar theme and variations on what we know as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’. Each variation has a distinct character and there was plenty of bravura that didn’t sound quite as convincing on the organ as on the piano (my first encounter with it was aged about 16, at a recital by the (very) late Richard Farrell in the Wellington Town Hall). As long as I don’t hear it every day, it remains an engaging work, even on the organ.

Mews introduced Eine kleine Gigue with a story that I didn’t entirely catch, about a small girl and a visitor’s book in the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig. So I looked at Wikipedia and found this:

Kleine Gigue in G major, K 574, is a composition for solo piano by  Mozart during his stay in Leipzig. It is dated 16 May 1789, the day before he left Leipzig. It was directly written into the notebook of Leipzig court organist Karl Immanuel Engel. It is often cited as a tribute by Mozart to J S Bach, although many scholars have likened it to Handel’s Gigue from the Suite No. 8 in F minor, HWV 433. In fact, the subject of the gigue bears a marked similarity to the subject of J S Bach’s B minor fugue, no 24 from Book 1 of Das wohltemperierte Klavier.”

The sounds of the organ’s action were audible during the Gigue and, having become alerted to it, I could hear the sounds later; not a troublesome matter in the least.

The Andante in F, the genuine mechanical organ piece, sounded like what was intended – basically a toy, and there’s a letter to his wife Constanza saying how its composition bored him. Even if Mozart knew it hardly did him credit the rest of us probably enjoyed its few harmless minutes, especially as Mews played it, in a lively, unserious way.

The Fantasia and Fugue was also written for the piano but Mews’s note suggests that it might best reflect Mozart’s style of organ improvisation. Widely spaced rising arpeggios on sharply contrasted stops in the Fantasy, with deliberate, emphatic playing that I felt probably did sound better on the organ than the piano. Though if it was in the nature of an improvisation, it sounded rather too studied. The Fugue clearly demonstrated Mozart’s wide-ranging genius, in a serious and well thought-out work inspired by Bach, and Mews’s imaginative registrations kept one alert through its monochrome, unchanging key.

Alla Turca
Finally, perhaps very tenuously, he chose the Alla Turca from the Sonata in A, K 331; a send-up of a send-up perhaps, Mews simply played it, I suspect, so that he’d be able to employ a wide and surprising range of stops, and on that level it was a fun ending to the recital.


Wilma and Friends

Wilma Smith – violin, Anna Pokorny – cello, Ian Munro – piano

Gareth Farr: Mondo Rondo
Ian Munro: Tales from Old Russia
Françaix: Trio for violin, cello and piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 2 pm

An hour-long recital from Wilma Smith and her two friends took place in the afternoon. Wilma was the founding leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, though she later became concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and then of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has never lost contact with New Zealand and her former colleagues. Her two friends here were Australians: Anna Pokorny is a versatile young cellist who has won awards in several important competitions, played in leading Australian orchestras and with various chamber ensembles. Pianist Ian Munro has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. His compositions have been played by eminent ensembles such as the Eggner Trio and the Brentano Quartet, as well as the Goldner Quartet with Munro himself as soloist.

And here was the trio’s playing of Munro’s Tales from Old Russia, inspired by some of the tales collected by Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasiev. The composer’s notes mention three but there may have been more: Fair Vassilisa, The Snow Maiden and Death and the Soldier. The Snow Maiden was the first, with fluttering imagery, interrupted by noisy galloping before a return to quietness. Death and the Soldier involved tapping the lowered lid of the keyboard, and ended in a waltz-like rhythm.

Though I found the first two pieces rather longer than seemed useful, I felt by the end that they created a kind of dramatic coherence.

Mondo Rondo
Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo which has become one of the more familiar pieces by New Zealand composers opened the recital. This too involved the pianist in what are called ‘extended piano techniques’ in the second movement, evocatively called Mumbo Jumbo (the last movement is Mambo Rambo). Though one might be excused for thinking that Farr’s often quizzical titles reflect music that is less than serious, the reality is generally very different, and I suspect that his aim is to induce an expectation of drollerie or comedy in order to induce unlettered audiences to expect to be amused; they generally are, but not in the way they expected. There are indeed a lot of unusual techniques, but in comparison with some music that finds it useful to use instruments in unorthodox ways, Farr’s piece creates a feeling of sense, with music that has come from the imagination rather than from some concept or experimental intention.

Françaix piano trio
The last piece returned us to the European heartland, though now truly in music whose aim was to amuse as well as to stimulate a musical response. The mere fact that it’s in four movements suggests that Françaix didn’t intend that his music was to be heard as light or trivial; rather that it was legitimate for music to amuse as well as to call for some degree of listener attention. The programme note remarks that while his music seems simple, in reality it is full of unexpected chromaticism and interesting details. My first awareness of Françaix was with his arrangement of Boccherini’s music for the ballet, Scuolo di ballo, an often played suite on 2YC, the predecessor of RNZ Concert many years ago.

And this performance met those expectations very well.


Bach by Candlelight

Oboe sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b
Violin Partita No 1 n B minor, BWV 1002
Arias from Cantatas 21 ‘Seufzer Tränen’, 84 ‘Ich esse mit Freuden’, 187, ‘Gott versorget’, 202 (Wedding Cantata)
Sarabande from the 5th cello suite (BWV
Brandenburg Concerto no 3 in G minor, BWV 1048

The New Zealand String Quartet, Thomas Hutchinson – oboe, Anthony Marwood, Nikki Chooi and Wilma Smith – violins; Ori Kam – viola and Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, from the Jerusalem Quartet; Anna Pokony – cello, Douglas Mews – harpsichord, Joan Perarnau Garriga – double bass

Nelson Cathedral

Monday 4 February, 7:30 pm

Central to the festival has always been a concert in the Cathedral entitled Bach by Candlelight. Though the School of Music is back in business, the Cathedral concert could not be forsaken. Like all the other evening concerts, the Cathedral was sold out, with customers squeezed into every crevice, and all the traditional shortcomings were suffered and enjoyed: mainly, the lack of cool air, obviously not a matter that the designers and builders of this neo-Gothic edifice, used to English climatic pleasures, could be expected to contemplate. The usual safety warning was delivered in a singularly irreverent and amusing manner by Festival director Bob Bickerton.

The tradition is to employ as many as possible of the musicians currently in town. That included the New Zealand String Quartet, violist and cellist from the Jerusalem Quartet, Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny, Douglas Mews and bass player Joan Perarnau Garriga, brilliant violinists Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi, oboist Thomas Hutchinson and soprano Anna Fraser. It’s also normal to play a range of solo pieces, small chamber music pieces, some vocal items, usually from the 200-odd cantatas, and one larger work, such as a Brandenburg Concerto or an orchestral suite.

Oboe sonata
The young oboist Thomas Hutchinson and harpsichordist Douglas Mews opened with a sonata with a solo part that’s not specified: it’s thought to be an earlier version of the first flute sonata, BWV 1030, and while it might also be for flute, the oboe is a possibility; so it’s given the BWV number 1030b. Hutchinson’s oboe here sounded a world away from the sound he created for the Dorati pieces that he played on Saturday evening. Discreet and detached in articulation, and cast mainly in the oboe’s high register, his playing was admirably supported by the harpsichord (the lid of which featured a gorgeous painting of the island at the end of the Boulder Bank). This was a most elegant performance, fluent and often impressing with Hutchinson’s long sustained breaths that were often demanded.

Violin Partita No 1
The second solo violin partita is more often played on account of the great Sarabande with which it ends; so it was good to hear Anthony Marwood play this one which is characterised by the varied repeat of each of the four ‘dance’ movements, which amount to a faster and more varied account of the movement. It means the partita has, in effect, nine ‘movements’; the ‘Double’ of the Courante was particularly brilliant. It would have been useful if I’d had the score with me as I’m not very familiar with it. Marwood’s playing was spectacular as well as having the flavour of the baroque style as might have been delivered by one of the brilliant violinists of Bach’s time.

Then came a couple of arias from the church cantatas: No 187, ‘Gott versorget’ and No 21, Seufzer, Tränen’.  An Australian soprano took the vocal parts. Though the initial impression of the first aria was of a large and voluminous voice, it soon struck me that those qualities, in her upper register, were somewhat unvaried, markedly distinct from the character of the lower voice, and it scarcely reflected the humility that seems expressed in the words. However, the accompaniment by oboe, cello and harpsichord was admirable. The oboe again offered the essential support in the long lines of the aria from No 21.

A break in the vocal pieces came with Rolf Gjelsten’s modest playing of the Sarabande from the 5th solo cello suite: slow, careful and unostentatious.

Anna Fraser returned to sing the aria ‘Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot’, again with oboe, Chooi’s violin, cello and harpsichord. The large, bright character of Fraser’s voice was more appropriate here, with the aria’s brisk tempo and the repetition of the word ‘Freude’, in joyous triple time.

The vocal line of the Wedding Cantata was supported by a larger body of instrumentalists, including two violins and Joan Perarnau Garriga on the double bass as well as oboe, viola, cello and harpsichord. While the vocal line can support a certain amount of unrestrained joy, here a quality of unrestraint was on full throttle, with very little variety of timbre and none of dynamics.

Gjelsten’s cello had much to do, contributing sensitively to the music’s character.

Brandenburg Concerto No 3
The last item was, as usual, an orchestral work – the third Brandenburg Concerto, which is scored for three each of violins, violas and cellos, necessarily drawing players from both string quartets (Monique Lapins switching to viola), Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny. For me this was the most satisfying and delightful music in the concert; its performance was simply splendid, full of energy and optimism that was vigorously expressed.


Nikki Chooi – violin

Paganini: Caprices no 17 and 21
Joan Tower: String Force
Bach: Chaconne from solo violin partita no 2 in G minor (BWV 1004)
Eugene Ysaÿe: Ballade Op 27 no 3

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February 2 pm

It was nice to get a couple of Paganini’s 24 caprices, without the usually compulsory No 24, though it would have been even nicer if Chooi had given us three or four of them, for they deserve to be better known. However, Chooi’s playing of these two did a good job in presenting Paganini as something more than an extraordinary violinist.

No 17 is brilliant, varied and witty, and of course it exploits all the tricks that the composer as well as this violinist commanded, though I felt that Chooi didn’t find all the subtleties and refinement that is also there. To hear a second one was useful in allowing those who’ve never heard them all to be aware of the range of Paganini’s imagination and musical taste; each is brilliant in an entirely different way.

American composer Joan Tower’s String Force seemed to be an exercise in contrasting violin techniques, comparable to but entirely different from Paganini’s aim. Flutterings, then lengthy glissandi seemingly on two strings, hair-raising bowing and harmonic effects, but I wondered, in a scribbled note whether there was much musical substance to be discovered.

That need was completely fulfilled in the playing of the great Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Here, Chooi’s performance was profoundly thoughtful, scrupulously studied and paced; a performance has to demonstrate the ultimate spiritual character of the music and one of my notes had a question-mark after that remark, but it was immediately followed by my admiring the long sequence of arpeggiated lines, and the flawless (without the score), passionate way he made his way through the gloriously protracted final pages.

Most of the great instrumental practitioners of the 19th century were also quite good composers, and the Spaniard Ysaÿe passed that test. I’ve heard the Ballade from his Op 27 before, played at Sty Andrew’s on The Terrace some years ago, though I can’t recall by whom. And one wonders what the other pieces in Op 27 are like, and for that matter, the preceding 26 opus numbers. The histrionics are very conspicuous, but there’s music inside them, with a healthy emotional content, and the melodic ideas retain the listener’s attention. Chooi presented it with musical honesty as well as very conspicuous technical accomplishment.


Slavic Rhapsody

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances in E minor, Op 46/2 and in D, Op 46/6  (Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – pianos)
Louise Webster: The Shape of your Words  (Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl – – violins)
Bartók: Violin Sonata no 2 in C, Sz 76.BB 85  (Monique Lapins – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano)
Dvořák: Piano Quintet No 2 in A, Op 81  (Helene Pohl and Moniqe Lapins – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano)

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February, 7:30 pm

Slavic in the sense that the majority of the pieces were by Dvořák, but Bartók might have preferred a more geographical rather than ethnic definition. But certainly, the Czech composer’s music was by far the best known.

Two Slavonic Dances
As I remarked about the limited selection of Paganini Caprices, three or four of the Slavonic Dances, including a couple of less known ones would have been interesting. The delight about these however was that they were played in their original piano duet version by Dénes Várjon and his wife Izabella Simon. Four hands on a keybopard can sometimes sound very dense, but when the two are perfectly synchronised, clearly been playing together for a long time and take pains with the clarity of the various lines, the result is revelatory: No 2 was delightfully sentimental and dreamy with touches that are usually obscure in the orchestral version. No 6 in the Op 46 set is in a sort of slow triple time, though nothing like a waltz or mazurka; it was simply charming.

‘The Shape of Your Words’
The piece by Louise Webster, featured another duet: this time the violins of Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl; a curious duet beginning with falling semi-tones, soon revealing itself as a carefully dissonant piece, gently barbaric in flavour, yet somewhat hypnotic. The composer’s note simply remarked that ‘it arose in the context of recent events in which courageous individuals have spoken out about injustice of many kinds’. But one was left to guess whether she had in mind, political, artistic, social issues or issues affecting the treatment of women or ethnic minorities… However, the music’s character did indeed present a tone, an intelligence and seriousness of intent that invited one to pay attention.  The programme gave no information about Louise Webster; however, she was present and came up to take a bow at its end.

I later consulted SOUNZ’s very useful and interesting article about her and am rather shame-faced at not having come across her, and her dual citizenship, as it were, as doctor and musician, or at least to have registered her as a significant figure in New Zealand music.

Then came Bartók’s Sonata for violin and piano which was the subject of the discussion on Saturday afternoon which had involved the performers, Monique Lapins and Dénes Várjon. That introduction had given me a little familiarity with an otherwise unknown (to me) work. The first of the two movements opened with delicate glissandi, creating a sensitive, Debussyian feeling that slowly became more dense, soon shedding much suggestion of French music of the time – immediate post-WW1. The second movement becomes more dissonant, with hard-plucking pizzicato and heavy bowing, with dense chords demanded from both instruments. This was more or less my first hearing of Lapins playing such music; she appeared a formidable violinist, not shy of crunching down-bowing or of playing that could be described as masculine, handling the irregular rhythms with conviction; and her facial expressions and body language offered a vivid commentary on the music. I was reminded, in this second movement, of the sounds of Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion, which came of course rather later.

Piano Quintet Op 81
Finally, the piece that most of the audience had probably been waiting for: Dvořák’s second piano quintet, in A. (Not so long ago I looked for the first piano quintet, to find that it’s a very early work, rarely played). First, one was struck by the sharp clothing adopted here by the five players, black with silvery detailing. Though the arrange of players on stage lend prominence to the strings, Várjon’s playing quickly commanded attention; but so did the playing by the strings, very possibly driven by the pianist’s energy and commitment. Each member of the quartet came to one’s attention with striking solo episodes, and the entire performance was all that the happy audience members could have hoped for. I will quote one of the thoughts that I scribbled towards the end: that even if Várjon was not the main driving force, his musical personality had the effect of releasing a remarkable level of passion and abandon in the others.


Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson: the first days

Grand Opening Concert

Mozart: Horn Quintet in E flat, K 407    Sam Jacobs – horn, Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Monique Lapins – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello
Brahms: Three Intermezzi from Op 118 (Nos 1, 2, 6)    Dénes Várjon
Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins, Op 58    Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi – violins
Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 111    Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler – violins, Ori Kam – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello), with Gillian Ansell – second viola

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts (Nelson School of Music)

Friday 1 February 2019, 7:30 pm

This was the first festival for five years that has been able to move back to the now magnificently enhanced Nelson School of Music (now called the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts). That, as well as the line-up of many top international musicians, saw the early sell-out of all but one of the nine superb evening concerts. That’s attributable also to the festival’s international reputation, attracting many people from around New Zealand and increasing numbers from overseas. My frequent comment that for the past 20 years, it’s been the finest classical music festival in New Zealand bears reiterating: its only earlier competitor was the three weeks duration New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington which has long ceased to be one of the richest classical music festivals in the world.

The first concert on Friday 1 February happened to be the birthday of the festival’s most important and longest standing sponsor, Denis Adam, who died last October. In their opening remarks former minister for the arts, Chris Finlayson, as well as festival chair Colleen Marshall, paid deeply-felt tributes to his 25 years of support.

The opening concert was an opportunity to show-case most of the artists scheduled in the early days of the festival. So the New Zealand String Quartet plus NZSO principal horn Samuel Jacobs opened this first concert with Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat, one of several challenging pieces that Mozart wrote for his horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb; it’s an unusual work, made more curious by employing two violas instead of two violins. The quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins, switched to the viola. It enriched the sound beautifully, even though in the beginning there was some imbalance between horn and strings in this very clear acoustic; the players soon settled to a performance of great delight.

Returning Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon then played three of the Six Pieces, Op 118, some of the many small piano pieces that Brahms wrote near the end of his life. Intermezzi nos 1, 2, and 6 of the set are sharply different in spirit and style, and they whetted the appetite to hear Várjon playing Beethoven and other music during the week.

Brahms’s 2nd string quintet and three intermezzi
There was a connection between the three intermezzi and the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance in the second half of Brahms’s second String Quintet (this time, the second violist being Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet). Though he intended that the quintet would be his last composition, as his health was failing, its great success encouraged him to write a lot more chamber music in his last years, specifically the 20 pieces of opp 116 to 119. They were three well-contrasted pieces in which Várjon found subtle and interesting characteristics, No 6 traversing a sad, reflective mood that grew suddenly more exciting, even overwhelming by the end. I rather wished he’d played more of them.

The quintet is not one of Brahms most familiar pieces, but this performance made it easy to understand the warm reception its premiere in Vienna in 1890 received; somewhere described as ‘a sensation’. And this performance, celebratory and confident, with all five players producing a rapturous first movement with warm, heart-felt, sometimes boisterous playing promised a similar response. The second movement may be rather more enigmatic, but there was no lack of unanimity in their playing, particularly in the uniform warmth and richness of tone that they drew from their instruments. Although the last movement might not have seemed as spirited and moving as the first, at the end the audience responded with a sort of hushed awe.

The 20th century was represented by a not-well-known piece by Prokofiev, his Sonata for two violins, Op 58. Its four movements, vividly contrasted, and ferociously challenging were played by Canadian Nikki Chooi and British Anthony Marwood. Though alternating in musical sense and mood from phrase to phrase, seeming to speak different languages, ultimately an astonishing integrity and a shared purpose was revealed both in the music itself and its performance.


Saturday: Meeting the artists and discussing the music

The Jerusalem Quartet, talking with Gillian Ansell

Bartók’s music in the Festival: members of the Jerusalem Quartet, Dénes Várjon with Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 10 am and 2 pm

Talking with the Jerusalem Quartet 
The day had started with a morning appointment in which NZSQ violist Gillian Ansell talked with the four members of the Jerusalem Quartet. It was one of those occasions when the public gets to glimpse the sort of relationship that exists between those musicians who appear to the audience as rather super-human beings. The light shone not just on the four Israelis, but also on the normality of their rapport with at least one other musician of comparable gifts and insight: here, Gillian Ansell.

Their lives: the two violinists born in Kiev in Ukraine, the cellist from Minsk in Belarus, and violist Ori Kam who was born of Ukrainian parentage in California. While the other three were original members, he joined the quartet in 2009. Their various backgrounds have naturally become of special interest through the political and military activities that have forced on the rest of the world, some understanding of cynical post-Soviet adventurism and the unwise behaviour of the Ukrainian and Belarusian regimes. Each revealed careers that existed before and continued after the formation of the Jerusalem Quartet, when the players were about 17. And their careers have been troubled by reactions to their evident nature of their relationship with the Israeli Government.

No doubt because of his fluency in English, Ori Kam tended to lead entertainingly, with interesting detail about his own and the quartet’s background.

In the afternoon, Dénes Várjon, members of the Jerusalem Quartet, and Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, talked about the three Bartók pieces to be played in the following days. The relevant works discussed and illustrated were the Suite for piano, Op 14, written in 1916, on Sunday evening, the second violin sonata, written in 1922 on Tuesday evening, and the 5th String quartet played after I’d left Nelson. Várjon spoke in some detail about the Suite and the influence of his early exploration and recording of folk music in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Algeria. He mentioned Bartók’s own comments in the recordings which had a singular impact.

Monique Lapins was given space to play excerpts from, and talk about Bartók’s violin sonata; I found her presentation rarely illuminating, especially through her near-seductive movements that created an almost balletic interpretation of the music. The excerpts chosen from several movements of each work were a revelation, preparing the ground so illuminatingly for all three. I heard the full performances of only the first two works, neither of which I was familiar with.   Like many others, I find Bartók a gritty composer, his music not especially engaging, though it richly repays perseverance and close attention.

The members of the Jerusalem Quartet then discussed Bartók’s fifth string quartet to which all contributed, though it was violist Ori Kam who tended to lead the way, guiding the quartet’s playing of significant passages, pointing to bits that reflected the folk music of this or that Balkan people, even Turkish, and he remarked on the readiness of the Balkan Christian population, even when faced with imminent Turkish invasion, to enjoy Turkish music. He contributed encouraging remarks like, “Cool, isn’t it!”.

Saturday evening: Schubert, Dorati, Schumann and Brahms

Schubert: Violin Sonata No 3 in G minor, D 408    Alexander Pavlovsky – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano
Antal Dorati: Three pieces for oboe solo – La cigale et la fourmi, Lettre d’amour, Legerdemain    Thomas Hutchinson – oboe
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47    Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano
Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40    Sam Jacobs – horn, Anthony Marwood – violin, Dénes Várjon – piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 7:30 pm

The Saturday evening concert opened with the first of one of the festival themes: the four Schubert sonatas, three of them called sonatinas in their first publication, after his death. Indeed, they are not heavy-weight in length or tone. Each was played by a different violinist: the first, No 3, D 408, played here by Alexander Pavkovsky and Várjon. There might have been a lingering trace of Bartókian urgency under the warmth and delight that the first movement produces, and one might have thought about the very short distance between Vienna and Budapest, or towns in which Bartók lived as a child, such as Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia). The violin produced a sound that had the burnished glow of Rimu.

Prize-winning New Zealand oboist Thomas Hutchinson chose an unusual solo piece for his offering in this recital of huge variety: a set of three pieces by composer Antal Dorati, who was also a conductor of considerable distinction: a Hungarian (to keep Bartók company).  Bartók taught him at the Franz Liszt Academy and he conducted the world premiere of Bartók’s viola concerto. To modern audiences his fame rests substantially on his complete recordings of Haydn’s 104 symphonies with the Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra created from refugee musicians who fled Communist Hungary after Soviet troops invaded to put down the 1956 revolutionary attempt.

Hutchinson’s oboe was rich and virtuosic in the performance of the three sharply contrasted pieces, ending with beautifully articulated playing of the fast, highly imaginative last piece, Legerdemain.

Schumann’s piano quartet
Two major chamber works followed: Brahms’s Horn Trio and Schumann’s Piano Quartet. The latter was played by the NZSQ’s Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov from the Jerusalem Quartet. Várjon emerged the hero however; though the balance between piano and strings was admirable and all the most remarkable aspects of Schumann’s genius were there to delight us. It is not an everyday experience to hear such an impassioned performance; and one’s attention kept shifting from individual string players to the ensemble sounds and then realising that I was not listening attentively enough to Várjon at the piano, playing with the sort of passion that’s more characteristic of eastern European musicians than to those of the western countries; after all, Schumann was brought up in Saxony (in Zwickau), very close to the Czech border.

Brahms’s Horn Trio brought back Samuel Jacobs and Anthony Marwood, again with Várjon. I found Marwood’s demeanour a little distracting, weaving about excessively, in contrast to his perfectly restrained performance with Nikki Chooi in the Prokofiev sonata for two violins on Friday. However, it detracted not at all from the sense of delight that his omnipresent violin produced. There was perfect accord between the three musicians, with the result that impressions from my earlier hearings of the trio when I had never been wholly persuaded that Brahms had succeeded in creating an intimate threesome, had to be revised. In fact, Brahms here seemed to have absorbed entirely the character of the horn and the way it could most naturally be blended with two other very distinct instruments. The energy of the first and last movements was remarkable. Though the piano might have been visually in the background, and risked being heard merely as providing accompaniment, I’ve never been so engrossed by the work, particularly in heartfelt passages in the gorgeous, elegiac third movement.

Sunday: Várjon in Beethoven and Bartók

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No 29 in B flat, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ and No 32 in C minor, Op 111
Bartók: Suite for Piano, Op 14

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Sunday 3 February, 7:30 pm

I did not go to the Sunday afternoon concert, even though I would certainly have loved to hear Monique Lapins play the third violin Sonata of Schubert, with Izabella Simon at the piano, and probably the pieces by Lohei Mukai and New Zealanders John Rimmer and Simon Eastwood.

Perhaps I felt that I needed to conserve my listening energies for the extraordinary Beethoven project in the evening. The mere thought of playing the Hammerklavier in the same programme as the Op 111 seemed to demand physical and spiritual preparation and calm.

The Hammerklavier
There were no preliminaries to prepare for the big one: Várjon opened as he clearly intended to carry on, with an attack of unbridled power that gave no room at all for gentility or decorum. In fact, it spoke at once to prompt the first scribble in my notebook about ‘the rough and tumble’ opening in which he attacked the keyboard with abandon, with no apparent concern about the inevitable fluff that listeners bothered by such trivia might have spotted. But any of that was utterly unimportant in the overwhelming strength and compulsion that drove Várjon’s playing.

It recalled a comment that I’d come across in a YouTube recording I’d listened to a few days before: “weird, titanic, gnarled, joyous, grief-stricken monster that is the Hammerklavier”. Though the recording in question was courteous and disciplined in comparison to what I heard from Várjon. Confirmation of the wild character of the performance came right at the start, with the sudden modulation, mid-measure, from B flat to D within the first minute, which seemed a far more rebellious act than one had ever encountered before.

At the beginning of the development section, following an unresolved cadence, there are several pauses which Várjon held for what seemed unusual length and which further sustained the sense of ferocity and recklessness. And unusually long pauses continued to characterise the development section, and particularly the recapitulation, always with extraordinary dramatic effect.

The contrast with the brief Scherzo was perhaps more than usually striking: bright and clear, yet with these more restrained rhythmic and tonal shifts Várjon maintained the dramatic mood of the first movement. Then the Adagio sostenuto offered an extended, painstaking retreat to a peaceful, contemplative quarter hour, certain passages feeling as if the pervasive 6/8 tempo has turned it into a Ländler, though Várjon seemed to treat it as if Beethoven was struggling, painfully to find some sort of equilibrium.  Throughout the last movement which starts in deathly quiet, he continued to illuminate the composer’s determination to exploit every possible disturbing and dramatic element that could be found in it.

The last movement is no ordinary fast and sunny affair. It opens in deathly quiet, and gradually accelerates to regain the spirit of fierce determination that had dominated the first movement. Many performances seem to recover a feeling of peace and acceptance, but by the end that spirit was scarce; I simply knew that I’d never heard such a tumultuous, wildly Romantic performance of this masterpiece. And I loved it.

Bartók’s Suite for piano  
The programme notes point out that although Bartók was a fine pianist, he wrote little for the piano; this Suite, Op 14, written in 1916, and a later sonata are his only significant piano pieces. It is in four shortish movements: Allegretto, Scherzo, Allegro Molto and Sostenuto. The first sounds like a folk dance, though none of the themes in the suite are said to be taken from his collection of folk tunes. It’s spiky, unmistakably Bartók, as are the other movements; both the second and third are also fast and only the fourth, Sostenuto, relaxes to allow a feeling of calm to descend, though Várjon never allowed us to relax, persuading us that the work deserved to be much better known.

Opus 111 
The recital ended with Beethoven’s last sonata, Op 111 and although separated by the Bartók from the Hammerklavier, it felt very much from the same source, providing just a rather more metaphysical, less ferocious version of the earlier work, though in the Op 111 Várjon sought to find comparable unease and power. Its long second movement, Arietta, which Beethoven carefully describes as Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, all hardly departing from C major throughout the 20-odd minutes of its five variations, builds the most profound musical creation starting with several slow, repeated passages, then minutes of rolling triplets, before breaking out with a sort of ecstatic episode with rising and falling arpeggios in dotted rhythms (you don’t often find time signatures like 9/16). Várjon built this marvellous movement steadily, creating a near-hypnotic state, ecstatic and profoundly spiritual. His playing seemed never really to return to earth as feathery phrases went on and on, long sequences of trills, all elaborating a profoundly moving melody that is spun endlessly, coming to a simple ending that called for and got a long held silence before an immediate standing ovation.