Intermezzi from Brahms via Michael Houstoun and Rattle Records

BRAHMS – Complete Intermezzi for solo piano
Michael Houstoun (piano)
RATTLE Records RAT-D131-2022
Producer : Kenneth Young
Recording Engineer : Steve Garden

This beautifully-appointed Rattle disc’s serial number finishes with the tell-tale date 2022, one which inspires a tale piquantly framed by yours truly as a poor excuse, but one nevertheless linked to positive outcomes. At the time this disc came into my possession I was in hospital recovering from heart surgery; and its frequent playing on my trusty disc-player during my convalescence would definitely have contributed greatly to the restoration of my well-being! Almost two years later, the only less-than-positive association I can think of linking my medical experience with these musical sounds is the time I’ve taken to get back to the disc and write this review!

The music on this recording consists solely of pieces from Brahms’ later piano music, cherry-picking those pieces known as “Intermezzi”. They’re typical examples of the composer’s ever-increasing disinclination towards “display” or “virtuosity” in his piano writing in these later works. On first hearing of the set as a whole I found myself wondering whether the pieces (all with this title which in a very Brahmsian way can be taken to mean “neither one thing nor the other”) would work together as a popular choice for all music-lovers. And then, upon playing the final bracket of those beautiful works taken from Brahms’s Op.119, I remembered all over again that my first-ever Brahms piano recording (a 21st Birthday present!) was of the legendary Richard Farrell playing the whole of the Op.119 set, with three out of the four pieces themselves having the title “Intermezzo”.

This time it was, of course, another New Zealand pianist, Michael Houstoun, bringing those Op.119 pieces to life for me once again, at the conclusion of this remarkable journey. Regarding qualities such as beauty of tone, range of expression, sense of character and depth of feeling I’ve not heard more remarkable or arresting playing from this pianist as here – under his fingers each of the pieces one encounters throughout the disc straightaway proclaims its individuality and sense of purpose to an absorbing degree, inspiring more thoughts and reactions to this music than on previous hearings I for one had bargained for.

On this disc the items are placed in compositional order, beginning with the Intermezzi from Op.79, then by turns Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119. It’s a sequence that makes sense, particularly as the pieces themselves exhibit a degree of variety along the way that richly rewards the listener. Not all have pure and simple beauty as their raison d’etre – while some ravish, others engage for different reasons, in certain cases exhibiting a quixotic spirit, while others strike a more sombre, and even tragic note. A couple show the influence of Schumann, and one or two contain for this listener foreshadowings of sounds for a later time. In short, the collection as a whole gives up much more than the title of “Intermezzi” might lead one to expect.

The disc’s first item, No. 3 from Brahms’s Op.76, is an enchanting Gracioso (the sounds uncannily predating something as far removed from the composer’s world as Anatole Liadov’s 1893 piece “A Musical Snuff-Box!”), here bright and sparkling at the beginning, then deep and sonorous in the alternating passages. It’s followed by the Schumannesque No.4 from the same set, an Allegretto grazioso whose sombre melody reminded me of the earlier composer’s Fantasiestücke pieces. And with the second of the later Op.117 set pf pieces I was again put in mind of Brahms’ great mentor, Schumann, and his Kreisleriana by this quixotic amalgam of flowing melody and chordal elaboration.

Two of the Op.116 pieces give voice to the composer’s “quixotic” side, the balladic No. 2 in A Minor, with its quasi-portentous opening, its agitated figurations which follow and its return to the seriousness of the opening; followed by a favourite of mine, a piece which refracts a lovely “improvisatory” feeling throughout, so beautifully and patiently caught by the pianist. Then, somewhat curiously, there’s the dotted-rhythmed No.5 in E Minor Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento, (with grace and very intimate feeling) in which Houstoun at a brisker-than usual pace brings out the almost zany angularities of the harmonies rather than the “dreamy” feeling of the piece as described by Clara Schumann.

Then, there are the out-and-out beauties, amongst Brahms most-loved piano pieces, such as Op.117 No.1 in E-flat Major Andante Moderato, and Op.118 No. 2, the latter favoured by soloists as an “encore” to a concerto performance – here, Brahms remarkably uses a similar three note pattern at the outset to Liszt’s in the latter’s “Spozalizio” (from Book 2 of “Annees de Pelerinage”). Brahms of course builds a completely different kind of structure, at the piece’s heart working “backwards” from the original theme by inversion in a remarkably beautiful way. A middle minor-key section is almost a story in itself when the melody is changed most beguilingly to the major for a short while, then reiterates its feeling in the minor key once more – and almost without a break the three-note opening returns, beautifully “integrated “ by Houstoun, and allowed to express its voice with no undue emphasis – a truly fine performance!

And there’s the enigmatic Op.119 selection at the very end, of course, beginning with the group’s dream-like opening Adagio. Brahms here seems to allow his improvisatory instincts full voice, beginning the piece, for example with a single-strand idea filled with wonderment, and then “growing” its capacities so that they permeate throughout the keyboard’s expressive range, And how beautifully and almost artlessly that single idea blossoms and informs the line’s descent towards its destiny, leaving us with as much promise as fulfilment. Houstoun’s playing of this on first hearing sounded from memory to my ears on a par, as I’ve said, with Farrell’s similarly poetic and philosophical approach.

The second piece, Andante un poco agitato, is another wonderful piece, beginning with angst-ridden figurations whose energies grow and build to the point where they tumble over one another – I like Houstoun’s bringing out the almost bardic spreading of the chords at various “pointed” moments, quixotically blending a sense of emotion “felt” and “relayed”, and continuing this feeling right throughout the more agitato passages – and then, how meltingly beautiful he makes the more lyrical, major-key way with the same figurations! The opening is recapitulated, before the coda reintroduces the major-key transformation as a kind of “leave-taking” to the piece as a whole.

Then, with No.3 in C Major, Grazioso e giocoso – well, what a sunny, whimsical and totally ingratiating way to end the recital! – at the outset, Houstoun emphasises the higher chordal right- handed notes rather than the underlying melody, giving the piece more of a “chattering” quality! But like his great Kiwi compatriot before him, Houstoun brings out the piece’s delightfully “knowing” innocence, as if Brahms is here saying “Who, me? – write symphonies?” – an aspect which belies the mastery of the whole, and brings the musical journey to a most satisfying conclusion.

“A sense of belonging somewhere” – The New Zealand String Quartet’s “Notes from a Journey” on Atoll Records

Notes from a Journey
Atoll Records ACD 118   Vol.1 (2010)
Atoll Records ACD 289  Vol.2 (2023)

The New Zealand String Quartet  –  Helene Pohl, leader / Douglas Beilman (2010), Monique Lapins (2023) violins / Gillian Ansell, viola / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Atoll Records Producer – Wayne Laird / Recording Engineer – Graham Kennedy

Notes from a Journey

is the title of a story in music that reaches a new chapter with the release of a new  (November 2023) CD from Atoll Records, one which furthers the New Zealand String Quartet’s already-impressive commitment to home-grown musical sounds. This present recording echoes a previous, similarly-titled presentation from 2010, and forges links of all kinds in doing so, both through direct connection and ongoing influences upon the works of a younger generation.

The title of these CDs is taken from a 1974 poem by Sam Hunt, one dedicated to fellow-poet Hone Tuwhare, appropriate in that, like a fellow-versifier, these are properly home-spun voices, as are the sounds brought to performance-life by these gifted musicians who feel the “flesh and blood” of the composers’ soundscapes and present it all with such heartfelt intensities…..

The earlier of these two notes from a journey recordings, incidentally, won a Vodafone Award in 2011 as the Best Classical Album of that year, and with a different second violinist in the ensemble, Douglas Beilman, who altogether completed 26 years with the Quartet before moving on in 2015. By this time the group had firmly established its credentials as an advocate of New Zealand music, with previous noteworthy recordings of string quartets by Anthony Watson, Gareth Farr and Helen Fisher, and premiere performances of the String Quartets of Ross Harris. There were also landmark collaborations that featured works by Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body and John Psathas. So, when this first notes from a journey collection appeared, it effectively showcased the expressive and varied flowering of some of the era’s most striking homegrown creative outpourings, as well as confirming the ensemble’s identification with and commitment to these and associated works.

John Psathas’s 1996 work Abhisheka began the first of the two recordings. Psathas’s work takes its title from the Sanskrit word for “anointment”, creating a sinuous and sensual feeling of something ritualistic, singular interactions of sounds with silences which represented a major departure for the composer at that time from what he himself had somewhat ruefully described as “an over-caffeinated style”, here instead opting for contemplative, slowly-paced soundings of tones alternating with wondrously-wrought spaces. There’s interplay between a quartet of voices creating resonating chordal sounds and solo lines, sometimes employing quarter-tones whose unchartered territories set tensions against profundities to wondrous effect. The Quartet gave this work’s premiere in Nelson in 1998, and previously recorded it on a Rattle disc called “Rhythm Spike” – even then something of a “moment of calm” in turbulent seas!

The proverbial modernity of JS Bach’s musical inclinations is given sufficient emphasis in the original Variation 25 from his set of “Goldberg Variations”, a string quartet transcription of which I heard the NZSQ play in its entirety in Lower Hutt an unbelievable decade of years ago, now!  Even to this day the memory of that occasion haunts any subsequent rehearing, be it of the original keyboard version, a transcription or (as here) an evolutionary step-child! Composer Ross Harris in his Variation 25 takes the original’s “immensity of human sorrow” and adroitly finds more refracted expressions of emotion through harmonic tensions and explorations which briefly pit their own momentums against one another in piquant displays of independence which stay in the memory long after order of sorts is restored!

What a pleasure to re-encounter Jack Body’s “Three Transcriptions”!  –  each has a haunting  “presence” by way of capturing the candour of the sound’s “openness”, the first being a Chinese  version of the “Jews’ Harp”  sound in Long GI YI, the harmonics so very plaintive and captivating, and with vocalisings bolstering the persistent rhythms. Ramandriana is a dance from Madagascar, mostly pizzicato, with occasionally piquant “held” bowings to colour the rhythms., all wonderfully complex and often asymmentrical, and marching off so engagingly! If the latter dance was essentially a “plucked-note” one, the last, Ratschenitsa, from Bulgaria, as much emphasised the “bowed” as the “plucked”, with foot-stamping and yelped vocalisings adding to the excitement, as did the 7/8 driving rhythms which constantly bent one’s ears and kept one’s inner trajectories on the boil!

One encounters a number of evocations of a projected “afterlife” in music of all kinds, with Michael Norris’s Exitus here adding a stimulating quartet of contrivances pertaining to different cultures’ view of an afterworld. A composer might conceivably select at random from the manifold cultural examples worldwide of corresponding scenarios, but the four Michael Norris have chosen contrast so markedly both with one another and with archetypal Western concepts of afterlife, the results in themselves are morbidly fascinating, underpinned by the composer’s own sonic imaginings for each.

We began with Quidlivun – The Land of the Moon where, in Inuit mythology, the virtuous are taken to their eternal rest, the soundscape appropriately remote, spare and dry, alternating engagingly animated impulse (new arrivals, perhaps?) with spacious, long-breathed lines which suggest endless, infinitely varied connections. A sudden irruption brought instant relocation to Xibalbá – The Place of Fear, the underworld of Mayan civilisation with the latter’s dominant societal figures of kings who were the intermediateries between humans and gods and wielded absolute power over ordinary people. This meant subjugation to a belief system that, amongst other things , threatened departing souls to Xibalbá with numerous trials and tribulations both on their journey to and throughout the Underworld. Involving delights such as “darkness, cold, fire, razor blades, hungry jaguars and shrieking bats” – long-held string lines punctuated by vicious sforzandi buffetings, eerie sul ponticello-like whip-lashings and poisonously-curdling cries and mutterings.

While the all-out assault was then somewhat relieved by the following  Niflheim – the House of Mists, the oppressiveness of a different kind was just as unrelenting – this was the cold, dark world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. I was reminded in places of Sibelius’s similarly bleak and implaccable ambiences in one of his Four Legends, Lemminkainen in Tuonela, except that Michael Norris’s evocation is an even more unequivocally bloodless and lifeless realm “from which no traveller returns” – no Orpheus would seek an Eurydice, nor a mother recover the body parts of her son for reassemblage in such totally unremitting  territories!

After so nihilistic an evocation it was something of a relief to encounter the more positive, dance-like aspect of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River), over which the soul passes to reach the “good hunting grounds” of the native American Choctaw Tribe. Despite readily employing similarly sharp-edged, biting string timbres and tones to the previous evocations, the ritualistic rite of passage depicted had an almost joyous and certainly anticipatory aspect for most of the journey, with even the “log crossing” trial presenting  concentrated, almost positively ritualistic efforts and gesturings rather than the more fearful and despairing earlier depictions!

The disc’s final work, Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki (A Farewell) commemorated a premiere for similar forces undertaken at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli in 2008. Upon first hearing, I thought Richard Nunns’ playing of the putatara (conch) and putorino (flute) together with the composer’s sounding of the pahu pounamu (Greenstone gong) conjured up a vividly raw presence which the string lines  sought to “ritualise” in suitably elegiac style. I liked the Vaughan Williams-ish modal sequences which then “framed” the famous “Now is the Hour” melody – but I thought the latter might have been given more “suggestive” treatment rather than played in full and harmonised.I confess to finding the effect here a shade syrupy, but perhaps only because I was expecting more abstracted melodic treatment somewhat along the lines of the disc’s other pieces. A second hearing worried me less, being more along the lines of my thinking ”it is what it is” and accepting it as such.

So – with the sounds of this first recording still ringing in my head I was drawn to make the connection with Notes from a Journey II, recorded thirteen years later by the same Quartet but with a different second violinist, Monique Lapins having taken over from  Douglas Beilman in 2016.

The new disc underlines the journey’s continuation, sharing with the first recording both a title and the work of artist Simon Kaan, with cover art detail from images named as a related series. It began powerfully with a work by Gillian Whitehead, Poroporoaki, dedicated to Richard Nunns, one of the pioneers of the use of Maori instruments (taonga puoro) in composition – this was a stirring imitation of the pūtōrino (trumpet), and went on to imitate other instruments outlined in the text. The transcription powerfully blended ritual with individually characterful voices expressing melodic, rhythmic and specifically timbral sounds in aid of giving breath to the process of farewell.

Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga  is next, an evocation of the title, which means “Planting Season”, and the activities associated with such a time, activities which naturally involve the ritual of work and song for purposes of evocation as much as productivity. The work is as atmospheric and melodic as structural, incorporating the intrinsic value of the presence of birdlife in Wellington’s natural environment – there is a tui’s song enshrined in the detailing as well as contributions from other birds such as the weka. As the piece draws to a close the ambiences bid us a farewell…

Tabea Squire’s piece I Danced, Unseen captivated me on its first hearing – it seemed as though the composer was at first awakening her store of inner voices more than any latent physical urgings, but with the music suddenly enlivened our focus was energised and sharpened, bringing  our sensibilities to their feet! These impulses continue to gravitate from melody to rhythm as the piece progressed until the sounds achieved full bloom as a unified conception, the players’ breathing strongly in evidence in places giving extra palpable energy to the proceedings.

In a different way Ross Harris’s String Quartet No. 9 straightaway compelled one’s attention with the players vocalising as part of the “chorale” motif which itself underwent as profound a journey as did the “episodes” which each chorale rendition introduced. Beginning as inwardly glowing blocks of sound, the chorale vocalisations stimulated increasingly colourful, discursive and exploratory variants of the same, alternating between gestures whose thrusting and angular aspects coruscated with what sounded like irruptions of both col legno and sul ponticello timbres,  the players swapping pizzicato and arco techniques at will  (as if opening and closing a kind of a Pandora’s Box of bombardment!). These energies eventually dissipated into independent  phrases and single notes, with the chorale “released “ to the strings alone, the players and their instruments “reaching out” towards the end, seeking a kind of transfigured resolution.

Louise Webster’s work This memory of earth presented perhaps for me the most epic of the disc’s scenarios, beginning with an ambience shaken and stirred through bird-calls repeated by different instruments to form a kind of consort communing with a sonic environment. These solo instrument calls variously brought into focus a remarkably concerted tactile picture of a world in accord with a growing individual sensibility, with the composer gradually morphing the sounds into a new, somewhat more desperate and in places lamenting scenario, as if the world of childhood order was threatened – the cello intoned a moving lament-like chorale which drew the other instruments into its mode. The utterance became in places almost mystic as the long-remembered bird cries searched for their once-prized ambient responses from their surroundings – a sobering, exhortatory soundscape of recollection and remonstration, conscious of and fearful for the fragility of the natural world that was once ours – all extraordinarily moving.

Lastly, Salina Fisher, the youngest of the composers represented by their works on this CD, expressed with her work Tōrino the resounding effect of taonga puoro artist Rob Thorne’s music upon her listening experiences. The work was premiered by the New Zaland String Quartet in 2016 and went on to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award the same year. Tōrino means “spiral”, with the music suggesting parallel kinds of recurring patterns as the strings seek to explore expressive similarities with the pūtōrino (known as both a trumpet and a flute due to its capabilities for reproducing both kinds of timbres and tones).

Fisher’s piece begins with vigorously ear-catching “trumpet” tones (kokiri o te tane, or male voice),  which give the impression of  summonsing calls and gesturings by the strings, both cello and viola readily sounding and overlapping one another, then joined by the two violins echoing the same figures and their variants.  The pūtōrino can also sing in different registers such as its “flute” personality when played at its other end, or when the player activates a different voice again by blowing over a “middle hole” in the instrument. Fisher achieves a “spiralling” effect with each of these expressive modes echoing and developing their material,  while in addition her inventiveness creates as much a sonic environment as a panoply of characterful voices.

Growing out of this synthesis come the more elusive, almost self-communing “middle hole” utterances, the piece’s “echoing” inclinations giving each impulse a resonating connection with what follows, be it a variant or a silence. They are the harbingers of the pūtōrino’s waiata o te hine (female voice), outpourings whose insistences slowly but assuredly reawaken the trumpet-toned voices, their reaffirmations proving to be the final, enduring sounds as the piece closes.

The performance of Fisher’s piece here epitomises the New Zealand String Quartet’s generous and single-minded commitment to the whole enterprise, with at every moment of engagement the players’ attack, phrasings and tones seemed to take us “inside” the notes and phrases, ambiences and silences. The two discs, of course, are separate entities, but their “bringing together” here reaffirms the extraordinary commitment of the players to these home-grown manifestations of what Douglas Lilburn in his celebrated 1969 essay “A search for a Language” called on behalf of local composers at the time “a sense of belonging somewhere”. And the works on these two discs are here reproduced with a fidelity of letter, spirit and atmosphere enabled in splendid partnership with Atoll Records producer Wayne Laird and recording engineer Graham Kennedy, people whose skills enable the sounds to retain what feels to me on each hearing as “an urgency of recreation” –  a listening  experience I would strongly recommend to all to try. The earlier disc has actually been sold out for some time, so perhaps a new and augmented groundswell of interest in this more recent notes from a Journey Vol.II production might well awaken and even rejuvenate its older, and no less worthy “sleeping partner”.

Whatever the fates decree, let plaudits be given to all for such a stellar achievement!

Colour and excitement aplenty – Monique Lapins and Jian Liu play Bartók for Rattle

Rattle Records presents:
BARTÓK – Violin Sonata No. 1 Sz 75
Violin Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
Rumanian Folk-Dances Sz 56 (arr. for Violin and Piano by Zoltan Székely)
Sonatina for Piano Sz 55 (arr. For Violin and Piano by Andre Gertler)

Monique Lapins (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)
Producer: Kenneth Young
Recorded: Graham Kennedy
Mastering: Steve Garden
Cover and Booklet Art: Night Music II by  Ernestine Tahedl

RATTLE RAT-D130 2022

Both violinist Monique Lapins and pianist Jian Liu are well-known to me via various recent live concert experiences, though I’ve yet to see them perform together (my Middle C colleague Steven Sedley reviewed a St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert at which the pair performed Béla Bartók’s First Violin Sonata – Rattle’s new CD devoted to Bartók’s works for violin and piano certainly whets the appetite for more from the pair! Backed by stunning visual presentation (the fantastical Bartók-inspired work of Austrian-born Canadian domiciled artist Ernestine Tahedl adorns the front cover and the booklet pages), everything about the production is so  attractively wrought and sonorously captured one can’t help but be drawn willingly into the music’s colour and excitement.

Bartók’s extensive researches in to and collecting of Hungarian folksongs strongly permeate both of the major works on this recording,  given that, at the time of their writing (1921-22) he was also expressing  interest in the Second Viennese School’s modernity and atonal explorations, along with the works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The folk-song element is evident at the opening of the First Sonata when the impressionistic whirlwind of piano tones introduces a folkish lament-like song from the violin.  An ebb and flow of exchange between the instruments dominates the first section, now forceful now rhapsodical, with the piano often set a-dancing by the violin’s roller-coasterings! The “great calm” that settles over the music’s central sequences is beautifully caught by the recording, the piano’s crystalline patternings augmented by the violin’s delicately-sculptured lines – all so haunting and magical, and gorgeously realised by both Lapins and Liu. Though interspersed with further trenchant violin lines and monumental piano tones, a sense of contained calm (with echoes of a “Dies Irae” chant!)  returns at the movement’s end.

The slow movement is begun raptly and wistfully by Lapins’ violin,  a gorgeous outpouring of tone, eventually joined by Liu’s piano – the plaintive and heartfelt exchanges bring to my mind the Debussy of Canope,, from his Book II Preludes,  the sounds suggestive of a deep yearning, so tender and inward. Distant gongs which sound mid-movement then build in weight and focus,  the rhapsodic mood gradually made excitable as the violin pours forth folk-like declamations, though the piano grounds the music once more, planting footprints in the music’s snow – we hear some ethereal high violin notes and responses of limpid beauty from the piano, before the enchantment of it all regretfully draws to an end.

The third movement is a foil to all of this, something of a madcap house,  not unlike the contrast between the second and third movements of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto – though Bartók’s differing moods in his finale are even more quixotic than Ravel’s! Wild, combatative chords from the piano issue a call to arms, a challenge taken up by the violin, its wild dance hotly pursued by the piano (lovely smoky, pesante-like tones from Lapins’ violin) resulting in a right old set-to between the instruments – extraordinary declamations, each blaming the other for the ruckus! – the instruments plunge into the “friss” again and again, but come to grief each time with different issues, one of them marked by almost grotesquely clumsy figurations from the piano, to which the violin cocquettishly responds, and another a sudden salon-like gesture of genteel insouciance – but both are whirled away once again by almost (at this stage) “silent-movie-galloping” sequences, with Lapins and Liu both on fire, the piano dancing and the violin rocketing up and down! – when, perhaps at the brink of exhaustion’s point,  a couple of mutually wrought, no-nonsense gestures conclude the mayhem!

The composer described the violin parts of both his two Violin Sonatas in a 1924 letter as “extraordinarily difficult… is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them” – though violinists “of the top class” may proliferate today, the difficulties of this music remain formidable, both technically and interpretatively. The Second Sonata has two movements, replicating the traditional “verbunkos” (translated as a “recruiting dance”), a sequence featuring a slow lassu introduction and a concluding friss. Lapins and Liu launch the work with expressive, long-breathed gestures right from the beginning, the opening folkish phrases beautifully sung by the violin and resonated by the piano, creating atmospheric and gorgeously-modulated sequences burgeoning with intent.  They “grow” the composer’s slow-motion intensities patiently, the playing by turns suggestive and full-throated, keeping the music’s exploratory musings and the folk-like figurations poised and expectant throughout as the movement comes to its tremulous conclusion.

As for the second movement, Lapins and Liu keep the listener virtually on the edge of the seat throughout the music’s brilliantly kaleidoscopic energies, beginning with portentous piano rhythms, brash string pizzicatos and impetuous running sequences, the exchanges growing wilder as the music develops. Along with an improvisatory kind of feeling – the music lurches from quiet and brooding to raucous and energetic almost without warning throughout – there’s a strong sense of striving towards somewhere the music might call home, expressed most convincingly in the folk-like themes that recurs on each instrument by turns throughout, a lyrical fragment of which eventually calls the work to rest. But along the way one relishes some familiar Bartókian gestures, such as the “tipsy” sequences mid-movement, during which one can almost smell the wine on the music’s breath; and the suggestions of “night-music” in places, though more hinted at than actual in such capricious music as here.  Elsewhere, the quicksilver volatility of these players’  exchanges and responses to the music are remarkable, from the brooding expectancies to the more trenchant, full-on engagements, the music seeming to reach out and summon the questing, exhausted spirit home at the end….

I enjoyed comparing Lapins’ and Lui’s playing with that on another New-Zealand-made recording of the same sonata, that by violinist Justine Cormack and pianist Sarah Watkins on the Atoll label (ACD 101) coupled with sonatas by Debussy and Janacek. I thought Cormack and Watkins found more light and shade in the work’s various sequences, their lighter touch enabling a quicker tempo for the first movement and lighter textures in places in the second. Having said that one couldn’t possibly nominate a preference for one performance or the other based on anything except raw feeling – suffice to say that I felt the Bartók performance by each duo was engagingly of a piece in style and intent with their presentations of the other music on their recordings.

It was a good idea for Lapins and Liu to present each Sonata with a kind of “makeweight” top provide some “breathing-space” for the listener in the wake of such intensities! – thus after the First Sonata we hear a set of “Romanian Folk Dances” which first appeared as a piano solo, but has since been arranged for various instruments as well as in an orchestral version by the composer – Bartók’s friend Zoltan Szekely made this particular arrangement. I first heard this music in its solo piano form on my very first Bartók LP featuring the pianist Gyorgy Sandor – on the sleeve of that disc the LP’s contents were described as  “A timid soul’s approach to….” (in small lettering) “BARTÓK” (in big print)! With works like the “Out of Doors” Suite and the ”Allegro Barbaro” on the disc, it was all an exhilarating experience,  here replicated for me by Monique Lapins and Jian Liu but without a trace of timidity!

After the Second Sonata the disc concludes with another arrangement, that of a Sonatina for solo piano SZ55, originally titled Sonatina on Romanian Folk Tunes when written in 1915 by Bartok, and subsequently reset for violin and piano by violinist Andre Gertler, who frequently performed with the composer. Lapins and Liu give these pieces all the fun and directness one imagines first attracted the composer to the “original” melodies. I felt sorry for the poor captive bear, in the middle “Medvetanc” (Bear Dance), but the concluding Allegro vivace restored my jolly listening mood. Throughout, as with the rest of the disc, I was lost in admiration at the players’ ability to adapt their style to the material, these dance-like items for me as warmly spontaneous and fun-loving to listen to as the performances of the two Sonatas were gripping and profound.

SILVER STONE WOOD BONE a miracle of evocation from Rattle Records


Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Al Fraser (taonga puoro)

Instruments used: Putorino (3 -flute, trumpet, voice-enhancer) Karanga Manu (bird-caller) Purerehua
(swung bull-roarer) Tumutumu (tapped percussive instruments)
Flutes (3 – piccolo, C and alto)

Audio acknowledgements: Grant Finlay (opening and closing Aroha Island crickets), Tim Prebble (rain), David Downes (birds), Dave Whitehead (Pureora dawn chorus)

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Graham Kennedy

CD artwork – Bridget Reweti

Accompanying notes – the composers, also Ruby Solly for her piece “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath”  (reproduced by permission of  Chamber Music New Zealand)

Rattle CD D115 2021

I have written less of a review and more of an account of a listening journey, here, which seems, now that I have returned to where I began my listening, a pity to disturb or subject to more conventional reviewing strictures. I hope readers might enjoy this slightly different approach, marked by many moments on my part of wide-eared wonderment at such “age-old newness” as is conjured up by these remarkable sounds.

Track No.1


Hine Raukatauri – goddess of music and dance – takes the form of the female case-moth

In the notes accompanying the CD recording Bridget Douglas and Al Fraser pay tribute to Dame Gillian Whitehead for this, the opening track, “Hine Raukatauri”, as it was the piece that originally brought the two musicians together as a performing duo. Birdsong (Karanga manu), is answered by the flute, at first in “forest” style, then stylised – the flute’s part is notated (though improvisation is encouraged) and the music for the taonga puoro is improvised. I would say it’s the piccolo flute, as many of the notes are so stratospheric. The Putorino calls, and the lower flute answers in a kind of duet – a richly resonant sound when the pitches combine. Chanted words come through the putorino, ghostly and other-worldly in effect, as two different tumutumu tap, one wooden-sounding, the other stone, with entirely different kinds of resonances – joined by the flute (alto? – a very rich and fruity sound), the figurations reminiscent of Ravel’s solo flute writing in Daphnis et Chloe in places – the Putorino calls again, the flute tongues in reply, varying textures in order to make contact, intertwining with the karanga manu. The purerehua rumbles impressively, like a giant voice unlocked from the depths of the earth – the karanga manu is awed, and falls silent after a few chirrups! – again the putorino “voice” and the flute tones intertwine “making” something new from the combination of resonances, the flute half-breath, half tone,  seeking to draw the voices into a common resonance. In this way, the goddess Hine Raukatauri animates her world.


Track No. 2

ROSIE LANGABEER – Drawing Fire from the Well

“Fire is the will. The well is the self”

Breath, harmonic-like sounds, waves of tones coming forth, rising and falling like the body of a giant animal – a sudden irruption of impulse and only the breath remains….after which the bullroarer awakens, vibrating the very air with the deepest of tonal pulsations, while the ambience is flecked with scraps of “spirit voices”, fragmented harmonics, derris-dust of the interactions, something the composer calls “simultaneously charming and unsettling”. The sounds are used by the composer to characterise both “fire” and the “well”, the well perhaps being the “source”, the crucible, the “cradle” of all things, while the fire is the “potential” that enlivens that space. We get something of the ambivalence of fire from the sounds, the “warning” aspects of fire’s presence because of its destructive properties, and conversely the life-enhancing aspects of fire, its warmth and comfort – its capacity for love, as composer Rosie Langabeer mentions, the love that warms and protects rather than destroys. Long-breathed sounds echo and re-echo from this space, gradually energising as the “will” exerts its influence, before being drawn back into the “well” again, the process seeming to take on a ritual-like quality that gives an impression of “playing out” for time immemorial, the infinitesimal differences part of the web and waft of evolution as the will is activated by the self to continue the ever-changing ritual. The sounds themselves invite closer scrutiny – Langabeer describes with a touch of wonderment “the note revealing other notes, multiphonics, the hidden sounds of the sound” and goes on to characterise these as “layers of physical energy, alive and ancient” – when the stick taps, or the bone or stone scrapes, as they both do in this piece, that energy is awakened from its ancient sleep.


Track No. 3

BRIAR PRASTITI – Terra firma

(“Terra firma” – firm land, the land one gratefully returns to)

Briar Prastiti’s piece is inspired by her relocation to Greece and her experience of loss of support of the familiar in doing so, of the immediacy of her surroundings and of relationships. The taonga puoro in this piece represent “terra firma”, the homeland, the place of belonging; while the flute is the kinetic force, representing explorations of arrivals and departures. The flute relies on the support of the taonga puoro, the provision of a “solid home”, and also stability whenever the composer finds herself “running too fast”!  In the piece itself there’s a pronounced dynamic contrast between the almost compulsively exploratory flute and the more “grounded” taonga puoro exchanges, almost a Don Quixote/ Sancho Panza-like relationship of different aspirations but common concerns. The flute-writing is epic in its territorial span throughout, while being accompanied by “guardian-like” wraiths of impulse keeping watch. Particularly moving is the meditative sequence halfway through the piece where the flute’s peregrinations are accompanied by earth-chime sounds, a “home fires burning” kind of ambience holding everything in an embrace – the flute’s sudden bursts of energy and restless exploration spring from this solid foundation. Earth-chimes give way to deep-seated voice-enhancers sounding a reassuring “breath of life”, which then turn skywards to birdsong over the last few measures of the piece, suggesting the idea of a homecoming kind of flight.


Track No. 4

JOHN PSATHAS – Irirangi – a meditation

I found this piece, accompanied as it was in the notes by a wealth of life-experience of its frequent and extraordinary manifestation, extremely moving – it’s as much a testament to the power of evocation possessed by all music as it is to these more specific people-driven instances of “connection” with the spirit world. Irirangi is described here as a “spirit voice”, one “floating alongside” a group of voices singing together. While this might have an unnerving aspect in some instances (Dylan Thomas’s story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” describes something of this phenomenon happening to a group of youthful carol-singers, who promptly disperse in fright!) it can put people more in touch with their own inner worlds of memory and sensation by attesting to an “uncovering” of sounds and impulses within,  a continuing stream of life-force which one can discover if one is receptive. In Ruby Solly’s essay “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath” in the CD booklet, she alludes to the voice of the “Irirangi” most movingly, as a voice “you already know”….

The composer of this piece, John Psathas, quotes Richard Nunns, an important instigator in the promotion of awareness of taonga puoro and their significance, as remarking upon Irirangi being what was “looked for” when these instruments were being played, and not merely the sounds in themselves. Psathas talks about using natural bird-sound recordings to “activate” the music further in this way, instigating a kind of “aspiration” of the sounds themselves to awaken impulses that express more that initially meets the ear – just as the voices cited in earlier accounts appeared to stimulate “spirit voices”. This singularity of music-making would partly account for performances of similar music having vastly different effects upon listeners (and other performers as well) – the activations having varied effects upon that vast range of harmonics, overtones and partials which inform notes and tones differently……

Psathas calls his work “a meditation” to enhance the idea of sitting and absorbing the natural world’s  “hidden voices” in a state of reflection. The piece begins with birdsong recordings, a stirring of the Purerehua, and what appears to be a pre-recorded “background” of  both airborne and earthbound atmosphere underlying the birdsong, the taonga puoro and the flute. Time and space seem suspended here as the instruments convey the exhalation of breath, the tinkling of stones and living voices – a great spaciousness seems waiting, wanting to be filled, the various irruptions energising the spaces with potent impulses. Such is the breadth of these soundscapes that time’s stillness consumes itself with unnverving swiftness, the interaction between the taonga puoro and the flute achieving to my ears that continuity of inner life and “mingling” of aspiration that results in a sense of “irirangi” imbuing the whole soundscape – remarkable!


Track No. 5

JOSIAH CARR – Tihei Mauri-ora

One would expect this piece, given its title, to declaim the presence of that life-force, the “breath of life” in no uncertain terms – Josiah Carr has done this in a remarkably lyrical, rather than declamatory way, interweaving the taonga puoro and flute voices together , the instruments contributing to a manifestation of the same life-force, the flute gradually “exploring” and pushing upwards with its melodic line, joining another taonga puoro at a higher pitch – the breath of life, the mauriora, allows the flute to soar, with another taonga puoro remaining its guardian close at hand. A frisson of intensity grips both instruments as they appear to reach for the sun towards the piece’s end, their lines and timbres interlocked in a kind of fierce ecstasy.


Track No. 6

GARETH FARR – Silver Stone Wood Bone

“Silver Stone Wood Bone” is a piece about breath and human expressiveness….. words straight from the composer, Gareth Farr, who brings a great deal of previous experience with the use of Taonga Puoro in conjunction with the late Richard Nunns, previously the doyen of Maori musical instruments and their use. Farr describes working with Al Fraser as having its own uniqueness, made all the more fascinating by Fraser’s extensive collection of instruments, many of which were new to Farr. He found the similarities between the European flute and taonga puoro more pronounced than any other combination he’d previously encountered, and decided to make those similarities a point of focus for his work. To draw the instruments as closely together as possible Farr asked Frazer to echo the note pitches of the flute as accurately as was achievable, wanting the instruments to “inhabit” each others’ worlds as completely as they could manage.

The music straightaway impinges on our sensibilities – like a wake-up call or a jolt from a dream than brings sudden consciousness, one material resonantly strikes another and stimulates reactions, coming instantly from the strike itself and then in response to its effect, from other taonga puoro and then from the flute. From the silence that follows the putorino and the flute trace concurrent though not exact pathways, keeping their pitches closely related – at one point the taonga puoro invites the flute to soar, which it does, before returning to the chant-like concourse of related sounds. At this stage in the proceedings I’m wondering whether the title of the work contains a ritualised kind of order of objects or impressions, or whether those elements mentioned are randomly evoked throughout the piece – certainly there’s a “shape” of sorts emerging, as the tintinnabulations of the first section give way to the breath-driven exchanges between taonga puoro and flute. Also, each of the four elements has its own text, which isn’t spoken or sung, but is possibly alluded to in specific instances –  I haven’t yet made any such connections other than the generalised references to “taonga of resonance and “minerals of great power” found in the first of four sections of the text, “Silver”, but am presuming that the “silver” represents the flute, as metallurgy was unknown to pre-European Maori.

The “chanting manner” abruptly changes to a kind of dance, reminiscent of a dancing piwakawaka – this time it’s the flute that drives the interlocking voices upwards and into a sonic “clinch” with the karanga manu (bird-caller). The dancing continues, the putorino voice-enhancer offering encouragement to the dancing flute, whose contrasting soarings are again matched and augmented by the bird-caller. While there seems to be no direct correlation between music and verse in the second “Stone” text, other than the “nose to the grindstone” quote which places breath and stone (pounamu, for instance) together when the stone is being fashioned, the text goes on to unlock the overall message of the sounds – “in this way we animate the inanimate”……

From the pause as the dancers regain their breath comes a rhapsodic meditation suggested by the tranquility of trees – the sounds invite us to reflect a while as we sit within a house made from wood and imagine it as a forest once again, the text of “Wood” powerfully evoking the idea of the trees pushing away the sky’s embracing of the earth to give the latter’s life room to breathe – flute and putorino rhapsodise on these spaces and their power of “presence”, as does Finnish composer Jan Sibelius in his “Tapiola”, in a more elemental and baleful sense.

How magical to return at the end to those sounds which began this evocation! – flute and taonga puoro at one with the bell-like strikes, the irruptions continuing in our minds as with all things in the natural world content for the moment of reflection to play in the confines of her silences.

He pai te mahi – tihei mauri-ora!

Now on CD! – Claire Cowan’s incandescent score for the RNZB’s recent “Hansel and Gretel”, played by the NZSO with Hamish McKeich

CLAIRE COWAN – Hansel and Gretel; a Ballet in Two Acts

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Recording produced by John Neill and Claire Cowan
Assistant Producer: Brent Stewart
Pro-Tools Editor: William Philipson
Illustration and Design: Fuller Studio

Verses: Amy Mansfield
Reader: Jonny Brugh

Recorded 2020 at Stella Maris Chapel, Seatoun, Wellington

After reading various reviews of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s Hansel and Gretel, toured by the company during 2019, I’m left feeling like one of the “gentlemen of England now abed” from Shakespeare’s Henry V play, those whom the monarch prophesised would “think themselves accurs’d” for not being at Agincourt to share in the splendour of the occasion’s success. And now, having listened to the enticingly-presented double CD set of the ballet’s music which the NZSO with conductor Hamish McKeich subsequently recorded, I feel doubly aggrieved at having missed out on seeing what “sounds like” a cornucopian feast of excitement, energy, colour and drama, if the music alone is anything to go by.

Of course, judging by the critical adulation given last year’s aforementioned stage production, this could well be a work that has now begun its journey towards becoming the balletic equivalent of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s well-known operatic setting of the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairy-tale, and thus a staple of any self-respecting ballet company’s repertoire. So, there may be hope for me yet!

Cowan’s experience of writing for dancers previous to this production had been in the contemporary field, so writing a ballet score, with the story and music “leading the way” and dictating what the dancers do was a new experience for her. Having met RNZB choreographer Loughlan Prior, who conveyed to her his long-held desire to make a ballet from the classic Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel story, Cowan agreed to undertake the project with him,  firstly trying out different “slants” on the original story and characterisations to give the scenario a fresh and more contemporary feeling. Working with Prior highlighted the specific requirements for dance music , such as the care needed when choosing time signatures and tempi, even if Cowan found that her choreographer preferred her music’s symmetrical rhythms to the angularities of 5/4 or 7/4 – but she confesses she simply didn’t want to be confined to 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 the whole time!

A dancer herself as a child, she had gone back to listen to some of the ballet classics –  Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – to “check out” what those composers did, watching a  actual production of “The Nutcracker” and finding herself surprised at how much more music there was besides those well-known “iconic” moments in the score, some of which seemed to her like “filler” – Cowan promised  she would set herself the goal in her own work of giving those continuity moments as “magical” a quality as anything else in the score through constant reiteration of variants of the main themes, so that the music’s special distinction was always present.

Though she’s actually not the first woman to compose a ballet for the New Zealand Ballet Company, as has been claimed in some quarters – Dorothea Franchi’s work Do-Wacka-Do, written in 1956, firstly as a jazz combo, and later as a suite rescored for full orchestra, was (coincidentally, like Cowan’s) a revisiting of 1920s musical styles (Franchi called her work “good old American Jazz”) frequently performed by the Company, and (again, like Hansel and Gretel) one toured throughout the country in 1961 with piano (the composer’s?) accompaniment – Cowan’s “Hansel and Gretel” is, however, definitely the first full-length ballet by a woman to be performed by the RNZB, Franchi’s work having usually been part of a “double bill”, or performed with other smaller separate items.

The 2019 tour of Cowan’s and Prior’s work, having been such a success, it seemed wholly appropriate for the venture to be preserved in one form or another – the composer certainly felt that the work could be “shared” with many more people who didn’t have the opportunity to attend one of the live performances via a recording. Conductor Hamish McKeich encouraged  Cowan to approach the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with a proposal that reflected both the success of the live performances and the obvious prestige of association with the same for the orchestra, the result being that fifty of the players’ services were donated by the Orchestra to the undertaking, with Hamish McKeich the obvious choice as conductor. The chosen venue was the Stella Maris Chapel at Seatoun in Wellington with John Neill, of Park Road Post producing the recording. Cowan embarked on a crowd-sourced Boosted campaign to make up the remainder of funds needed for the project, and with all the arrangements and the planning in place, its completion seemed certain.

This of course being 2020, nothing was thus assured, with a community outbreak of Covid-19 in Auckland in August bringing plans to a standstill. Undeterred, though at considerably greater expense, Cowan continued the process piecemeal with a series of two-and-fro operations between Auckland and Wellington , the work having to be recorded in sections with different instrumental groups, and painstakingly dovetailed together at the end. It’s a tribute to the determination, expertise and patience of everybody concerned that the end result seems to my ears as magnificent as if there were no disruptions!

From the Overture’s beginning the music is a kaleidoscopic delight of sensation and impulse, the piece illustrating a burgeoning of things to come in the story from what seem like wistful, everyday situations.  It’s beyond the scope of this review to describe the whole ballet, but the opening scene gives the listener more than enough enticement to pursue the wonders that the story in its entirety delivers. The Street with its ceaseless comings-and-goings movement illustrates the world of the children’s family, the piquant detailing of busy-ness and cheerful purpose set against the frequent singing lines which depict care and longing, as well as something of the family’s circumstances in a world of harsh economic realities.

A Mary Poppins-like frisson of premonition introduces The witch’s ice-cream bicycle, the composer cleverly blending wonderment and unease at her antics, then normalising her presence by having her disappear into the falling dusk along with everybody else. Cowan illustrates her mastery of transition here, morphing the crepuscular ambiences into a kind of night-life scenario as both colours and impulses begin to repeople the scene, taking us from this into the children’s family home (no cruel and heartless stepmother, here, but simply loving and caring parents), where Dinner is being served, the parents obviously doing their best to remain cheerful, passages for solo violin and strings expressing the family’s bonds of love and care , while various other passages (wind and brass) suggest the paucity of fare.

The ear is constantly tickled by Cowan’s invention, each impulse pf movement and phrase of melody a suggestive experience for the listener. Particularly touching is the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father, blending characterful concerted movement with complete freedom, the imagination both shaped but unconstrained by limitations of time and space – it was here I strongly felt Cowan’s experience as a film composer coming through, in her evocation of a “state of things”, one into which we as listeners were readily invited to observe and “feel”.

The rest follows the outlines of the Grimm Brothers’ classic story, though with some particularly “tasty” ingredients added, suggested by sequence-titles like The Witch’s Baking Charleston , Cowan‘s 1920s settings having liberally spiced the music with Broadway and jazz influences. In general, the music for the second part is brighter, brassier and more extrovert, as befits the blandishments of the gingerbread house scenario in which the children find themselves. Across this, recurring themes knit the episodes into a compelling whole, with associated groundswells of emotion bubbling up in places like the reprise of the Pas de Deux for the Mother and Father while looking for their children, a self-confessed favourite moment in the work for the composer!

The CDs contain a “bonus” at the end of the ballet’s action, a retelling of the story in verse, written by Amy Mansfield, here, racily delivered by Jonny Brugh, of 800 Words and What We do in the Shadows fame, to the accompaniment of musical excerpts from Cowan’s soundtrack. Mansfield’s words, saucily mixing finely-tuned imagery with drollery and outrageous doggerel, catch the spirit of Cowan’s music with gusto and relish, a delectable introduction/reminiscence of the complete work, if perhaps not, like gingerbread houses themselves, to be indulged in too freely or frequently!

No, the music itself, its creation and realisation, is the true joy of this delectable offering; and, as with the works of those luminaries previously mentioned, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, on the strength of this recording able to stand alone and bear witness to composer Claire Cowan’s stellar achievement. Whether those words of Shakespeare’s quoted at this review’s beginning resonate with you or not, you are urged to investigate this beautifully-appointed recording of “Hansel and Gretel” without delay!

(I am advised by Claire Cowan herself that the set is available only on bandcamp at this stage. For more information click on the following link – for both physical CDs and digital copies. The physical copy comes with a digital download too.)



Compelling Beethoven recordings from Eugene Albulescu

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major Op. 15
Piano Concerto No, 5 in E-flat Major Op.73 “Emperor”

Eugene Albulescu (piano/conductor)
Orchestra of Friends

(Recorded January 12th 2020,
Baker Hall, Zoeliner Arts Centre, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA)

AMP Recordings


It’s a measure of the remarkable staying power of Beethoven’s music that new performances and recordings of works that many of us know so well through having heard them countless times over the years simply keep coming (and show no signs of abating two hundred and fifty years after the composer’s birth).  Having recently heard a good deal of the New Zealand String Quartet’s acclaimed traversal of the great man’s works in that genre, I can directly testify as to the music’s almost uncanny capacity for renewal – “forever contemporary” as Igor Stravinsky once said of one of these pieces, the “Grosse Fugue” op. 133, a description that, although specifically intended, suggests also something of the capacity of most of Beethoven’s music to speak directly to us, free from time, place or convention.

So, when I heard of Eugene Albulescu’s recording of two of the piano concertos (both of which, incidentally, the pianist directs from the keyboard), I was immediately interested. I’d experienced at first hand his playing in concert during those years he’d spent in New Zealand (his family had emigrated from Roumania in 1984), and had previously reviewed at least two of his earlier recordings, including an astonishing Liszt recital, released on the Ode/Manu label, one which won the young pianist the Grand Prix du Disque Liszt in 1994. He’d by then left these shores, going to Indiana University to study with Edward Auer, and graduating in 1994; and he’s since performed in various places around the world, as a solo pianist, chamber musician and conductor, establishing himself firmly in the United States with successful concert appearances and radio broadcasts. He’s currently a Professor of Piano on the music faculty at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Albulescu’s orchestra in this recording is described as the “Orchestra of Friends”, which suggests a “pick-up” group, though in fact it’s an ensemble associated with the University made up largely of players who had recently worked together with the pianist/conductor on another performance project, so that they were more than usually “in accord” with one another for the Beethoven sessions. In a fascinating essay presented in the booklet accompanying the disc, Albulescu outlines his “history” of contact with the concertos, involving his taking three different roles in performing them at various times – as soloist, as conductor, and as a soloist/conductor – which for him has shaped and formulated many insights and attitudes towards the music and its performance over the years. I was delighted to learn of his association with another advocatee of the practice of “conducting from the keyboard”, one of my all-time pianistic heroes, Paul Badura-Skoda, whom I never heard play “in the flesh”, alas, but who was the pianist who “introduced” me to Beethoven via his recordings of a number of the piano sonatas during the 1960s..

Albulescu stresses at one point in the essay (in all its parts it’s an absorbing “read”) that his attitude towards performing these works as a soloist/conductor wasn’t designed to eschew  or even undermine the role of a conductor in performances of these works, but merely to explore the processes of music-making and its effect on the work when soloist and conductor are one and the same. Implementing this practice certainly seems to me to make a radical shift in terms of weighting the music’s basic message, not so much in the two earlier Beethoven works, but very much so in the more romantic and dramatic theatres of exchange presented by the later concerti. Even so, I find myself taking some issue with Albulescu’s subsequent characterisation of a separate conductor’s presence in performance of these works as an “interference”, further compounded by what he terms the “non-playing” contribution of the latter (which then raises an age-old point of discussion regarding a conductor’s “influence” upon sounds made by his or her musicians!). I agree regarding the likelihood of a performance’s “unity of vision” being easier to realise under the control of a single interpreter, but would also argue that the alternative – a creative partnership between a soloist and conductor – can bring just as fascinating outcomes and rewards to concerto performances.

But this is supposed to be a review rather than any kind of dissertation on MY part – so I’ll forego any further comment along these lines and concentrate henceforth on the music-making on the disc!  For the most part I found these totally engaging performances, presented in fresh, crisp and immediate sound whose touch of dryness makes for a degree of clarity that allows us to enjoy all the more these players’ distinctive orchestral textures – the timpani rolls are especially “present”, as opposed to the indistinct rumble we often hear in recordings. Albulescu’s own playing is characterful from the outset, his phrasings having a spring and urgency that suggests pulsating life rather than something on any kind of safe, “middle-of-the-road” course. One senses a truly symbiotic partnership between players, such as the horns’ exchanges with the soloist just before the first movement’s recapitulation, full of poised, deliciously- sprung expectation – or the way the ensemble builds the excitement in the leadup to the first movement cadenza.  Incidentally what a cadenza this was! – no less than the third Beethoven had written for the concerto, and written much later than the other two (I thought it was possibly the pianist’s own, until I read the booklet notes more carefully!). It certainly encapsulates a somewhat transcendent mood compare with the remainder of the movement, though the performance had, in a retrospective sense, already prepared the way for something special to happen at this point.

Perhaps the slow movement’s ambience took a while to counter the sound’s dryness but the playing still resonates amply throughout – and the resulting instrumental clarity allows the listener full awareness of the detailings and dovetailings that give the music so much inner life. It’s not exactly “innigkeit”, here, but something fresher, a living flow, an eagerness to communicate which I found myself constantly aware of and relishing to the full. Came the finale, however, and I confess I was initially taken aback at the brusqueness of the piano’s introduction, Albulescu’s energies driving the figurations past the point of carefree fun towards and into a “Rage over a Lost Penny”-like urgency. While perhaps compelling in itself, it imparts for me an “edge” to the light-hearted theme which I’m still not entirely used to at this stage, preferring far more of a sense of fun and delicious interplay between piano and orchestra. Albulescu’s players are, however, with him all the way, grandly introducing the solo cadenza, then at the very end, bidding the piano a fond farewell, then abandoning the instrument altogether in their final tutti, given here with loads of panache.

So to the “Emperor” – and here was grandeur aplenty right from the start, the orchestral chording rich and sonorous, the replying piano flourishes combining flair, excitement, energy, control and quixotic impulse. The allegro sets off with no-nonsense singularity which burgeons into detailed purpose as the music broadens its scope, though still keeping the forward thrust to the fore even as the different instrumental groups strut their bounteous stuff. With the piano’s entry, Albulescu establishes his credentials as a worthwhile keyboard partner in the journey ahead, working hand-in-glove with the ensemble, bringing out the “character” of each episode, and maintaining that inexorable sense of forward movement that marks any “great” Beethoven interpretation.

And it’s a momentous journey, filled with the drama of both collaboration and confrontation during moments when imposing brass and timpani join forces to “slug it out” with the soloist, hammering single notes back-and-forth at one another in a trial of endurance, before the combatants regroup their forces and come out together with a reprise of the concerto‘s opening! This and other exchanges seem to me tailor-made for a test of different wills exemplified by piano and orchestra with soloist and conductor respectively, the ensuing confrontations causing sparks to fly, points of view to be contrasted, bargains to be struck and dovetailings to come together, a process that advances the music’s drama and resolutions in a properly full-blooded way. But Albulescu and his players also keep such potentialities open throughout, holding nothing back on either the piano’s or orchestra’s side and setting impulse against impulse in a convincingly dramatic manner, the piano by turns strong, spiky and combatative to the end, and the orchestra equally sonorous and responsive in reply!

After the energies, storms and rapprochements of the first movement, the Adagio un poco moto exudes a welcome calmness and serenity at its opening, Abulescu and his players giving the floating lines plenty of play over a strong, spacious undertow that keeps things constantly interactive, connected the whole time to terra firma with those beautiful wind and brass realisations suggesting a kind of replenishment of the spirit by nature. Having experienced the relative severity of the treatment given the C Major Concerto’s finale by these musicians, I was wondering whether a similarly “edgy” spirit would be unleashed by the players here, and couldn’t help a feeling of sharp-edged expectation hanging about the opening, the strains of the finale’s theme “plucked from the ether” so magically by the piano……

At the beginning Albulescu’s vigorously-propelled, somewhat angular projection of the theme on the piano suggested various kinds of feelings regarding his intent and mood – was it natural exuberance, excitabililty or sheer devilment of purpose which fuelled such  impulsiveness? As with the C Major Concerto’s finale, the pianist’s fingers imparted an “edge” to any sense of Olympian or Godlike ebullience or jocularity, here rather more appropriately suggesting perhaps serious intent in itself, or else intended as a “foil” to some of the movement’s contrasting episodes. We heard gentler tones sound the ringing of the key-changes throughout the central sequences, for instance, delivered by the pianist with grace and charm, before bigger-boned phrasing introduced the vigorous minor-key section which then tremulously and radiantly blossoms into a shared paean of exuberant praise of existence itself as the opening piano theme returns. Finally, the beginning of the movement’s coda is here so beautifully crepuscular in its realisation, pianist/conductor and timpanist capturing a sense of spacious resonance that one imagines as gently undulating throughout a cosmos stirred and shaken by a unique creative exuberance – one which bursts out over the final bars of the work in a vigorous exchange of life-affirmations!

Despite the quibbles, there’s no doubt in my mind that with this disc Eugene Albulescu has triumphantly demonstrated, together with his intrepid band of excellent players, that these oft-played and recorded works can still surprise, startle and arrest the attention, with performances that both challenge and affirm, as well as surprise and delight. Having said all of this, I’m aware that the business of actually procuring the recording might well be an “easier said than done” process for anybody! Though the disc doesn’t appear to have found its way to Marbecks in Auckland, yet (or hadn’t the last time I checked), it does feature on Amazon –, – and there are these things called “downloads” which remain a mystery to me, as I’m firmly of the persuasion that still prefers a physical object such as a CD to the ephemeral idea of a download from the ether. This site seems to offer some help in this regard, though I’m not sure about purchasing any kind of product – but it does seem as though you can get to listen to the performances!  The “link” I found to a site that promises a review AND the complete recording doesn’t seem active, but I found it on Google by typing “piano magazine Eugene Albulescu” – the rest is over to the intrepid and the fearless!  Whatever it costs in effort or riches, the rewards are well worthwhile ……

Gareth Farr’s “Chemin des Dames” Concerto and Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto together a powerful “concerted” statement on disc

ELGAR – ‘Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85
FARR – ‘Cello Concerto “Chemin des Dames”

Sébastien Hurtaud (‘cello)
Benjamin Northey (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Rubicon RCD 1047

I tried, I REALLY DID try to NOT look at my previous review for “Middle C” of the concert featuring the Gareth Farr ‘Cello concerto played by the same ‘cellist, Sébastien Hurtaud (also with the NZSO, though with a different conductor, Hamish McKeich) before writing this present review of the piece’s CD recording – of course, it was a different performance which needed to be “responded to” on its own merits; but I also wanted to check out my reactions to the same piece heard on a different occasion, for nothing more than my own interest’s sakes. There are, after all, so many variables of a subjective nature at work experienced by any listener hearing the same piece of music twice, to the point where it can be a totally different experience the second time round. (Incidentally, the earlier “Middle C” review can be found at

One of the main factors which coloured each experience differently for me was the other music which Farr’s concerto was played alongside, perhaps rather less significantly on a recording, where the listener can, if she/he wishes, choose to hear any work as a “stand alone” experience. In the 2017 concert at which the concerto was presented, we also heard music by Pierre Boulez and John Adams, neither of which pieces seemed to me to have much to do with Gareth Farr’s work – which, of course, was neither here nor there, except that the concert’s advertised title was “Aotearoa-plus!”, and I remember expending a good deal of reviewer’s energy at the time complaining about having only ONE work by a New Zealand composer in the programme!

First on this new Rubicon CD was a performance by the same artists of another ‘cello concerto, one which had a good deal of commonality of circumstance with Farr’s work – this was Elgar’s E Minor Concerto Op. 85, written in 1919, in the First World War’s aftermath, and regarded by many commentators as a lament on the part of the composer for the horrors of the conflict and the destruction of a way of life. Farr’s concerto for the same instrument, written almost a hundred years later (1917), was also written with the First World War in mind, though more specifically dedicated to the memory of three of his great-uncles, who lost their lives in the conflict, and are buried in France and in Belgium. The work’s title “Chemin des Dames” (Pathway of Women) was the name of one of these places of conflict, but was employed here by the composer to underline the impact of loss the war had on women such as the composer’s great grandmother, who had lost her brothers.

I thus began my listening with the Elgar Concerto, a work indelibly associated for a whole generation of music-lovers, myself among them, with British ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose legendary 1965 recording made with Sir John Barbirolli continues to haunt the interpretative echelons of this work for all of its subsequent performers. To his credit Sébastien Hurtaud makes the work as much his own as could be humanly possible, a rich, and deeply mellow solo statement at the opening setting the tone of the performance as one both gorgeously-voiced and sensitively nuanced. He’s partnered by the NZSO conducted by Benjamin Northey, the playing alert, fresh and direct at all times, if, to my ears recorded a tad backwardly in relation to the soloist, which I thought reduced the poignancy of solo instrumental dialogues in places, while still giving plenty of weight to the “big moments”.

The ‘cello is captured beautifully, Hurtaud’s plauying bringing out the “striving” quality of the first theme introduced by the strings and rising confidently to meet the full orchestral tutti – strong, stern stuff, indeed! The subsequent exchanges between soloist and orchestra beautifully point the difference here between the minor- and major-key ambiences, the life and energy of the latter projected so whole-heartedly – and while the orchestra’s individual instrumental lines seem to me too reticently-placed compared with the soloist, the tuttis ring out clearly and satisfyingly, with the brass a real presence.

Hurtaud makes us pay attention to the softest of pizzicati during the transition to the scherzo, the orchestra responsive, and the exchanges volatile, so that when the scherzo finally kicks in, the surge of energy is electric. Again the full-blooded orchestral shouts are most exciting, but I wanted to hear more of the pointillistic detail of the dialogues – still the accelerando at the movement’s end here has a wonderful ‘edge-of-the-seat” spontaneity!

How beautifully these musicians breathed the slow movement’s opening – lines filled with nuance, and hearts pulsing as one! The power of the music’s self-reflection and its emotion seemed at times  too candid to speak even of its own volition, the performance thus becoming a simple act of faith and will on the part of the players. Was the pause before the finale blustered in a shade too long? – when entering, the orchestra was right on the button with its crescendo, and afterwards supported the soloist’s musings with a rich carpet of sostenuto tones. Hurtaud’s sudden, thrusting, irruption-like  phrases became a veritable call to action, and we were away, with splendidly virile tutti passages in response to the soloist’s energies. The exchanges took us through plenty of incident, the cellist’s discourse vying with wind figurations and flecks of passing orchestral colour – some of which I wanted to hear more of, though the rumbustious passages had real bite – and the drollery of the orchestral ‘cellos joining up with the soloist was a sequence of truly collaborative delight!

But then, to be plunged into the work’s next section after these relative pleasantries – into what one suddenly felt to be the “dark centre” of the work! – was a shock! Elgar was profoundly affected by the war’s tragedy, and the disastrous effects on both man and beast (the suffering reportedly endured by the horses in combat zones he found particularly upsetting!) – and as Sebastien Hurtaud tells us in his notes, the composer may have, while working on the concerto, heard of the death in battle of one Kenneth Munro, the son of his long-ago ex-fiancée, Helen Weaver (who, incidentally, emigrated to New Zealand after breaking off the engagement). Here, the music seems to openly weep, all inhibition forgotten, ‘cellist, conductor and players caught up in giving voice to an outpouring of despair, its darkness leavened only by a brief quotation from the slow movement and a surge of grim defiance via a flourish at the end.

Gareth Farr expresses surprise, writing a note in the CD booklet about his concerto, that the work has so much in common with the Elgar – he never expected it to be bracketed thus, so his own work was originally conceived with no conscious thought about the older composer’s concerto for the same instrument. The cyclic quality of both works struck him forcibly when producing this recording together with Sebastien Hurtaud, whose comments about both works also highlight the ritualistic “beginning and ending” aspect of both pieces. Both also point to the shared focus of each concerto upon the tragic “Great War” years, Hurtaud describing each piece as a kind of “Requiem”, in the cellist’s words, “universal in scope and rooted in personal dramas” – a powerful and succinct way of characterising their shared qualities.

To the Farr Concerto, then, one which sounded as much awakened into being as played, with orchestral strings gently activating ambiences coloured by harp and keyboard figurations – the cello’s lament-like bird-call sparked responses from winds and brass at first before fetching up a sudden vehement crescendo of orchestral sound, brutal but brief. In the recitative that followed, the cello was echoed by winds and brass, bugle calls and a stirring of ghosts, with lots of dialogues between the soloist’s meditations and full-scale and single-instrument orchestral responses. Hurtaud’s rapt playing touchingly evoked a wanderer picking a way through a sometimes desolate, sometimes disturbingly animated landscape, as if looking for something – seeking a voice or impulse that could bring enlightment or recognition, Farr’s writing creating ambiences “stirred and shaken” with intent whose lamentings, interacting with clarinet, oboe and harp, as well as the strings, eventually provoked conflagration.

As sorrow confronted anger, the music turned on itself, the lines and textures catching the solo ‘cello up in merciless conflict – a fusillade of orchestral sounds followed, whose purpose seemed to unleash the forces of negation, which sought to fragment and undermine substance, battling with the cello’s voicing of the exotically-tinged theme, and taking it over, holding it to what seemed like ridicule. It all became a kind of bacchanale of brutality, a bombardment of grotesquely-wrought shrapnel whose repeated waves ran their course before exhaustedly subsiding.

The ’cello was left “to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire”, which Hurtaud and his instrument did in an extraordinary display of energy interwoven with inwardness, a reaffirmation of life culminating with the return of the work’s opening – strings, celeste and harp,  then percussion, winds and brass, the sounds stealing in to proclaim, amid the desolation, a laid-waste peace.

What seemed to me at the outset a pairing of entirely different compositions has, on rehearings of the disc, brought the “worlds” of the two works more closely together, above and besides the obvious commonality of association with the 1914-18 Great War –  at one and the same time a vital and thought-provoking listening experience.


Splendiferous sounds captured on CD from Christchurch Town Hall’s rejuvenated Rieger organ courtesy of Martin Setchell


Martin Setchell at the Rieger Organ of Christchurch Town Hall

Mons Leidvin Takle – Celebration
JS Bach – Prelude in G Major BWV 541
Alexander Guilmant – Grand Choeur in D (alla Handel)
Reynaldo Hahn “A Chloris” (arr. Setchell)
Noël Goemanne – El dia de Fiesta
Enrico Bossi – Scherzo in G Minor Op. 49 No. 2
Bonaventura Somma – Toccata in A
Louis Vierne – Romance from Symphony IV
Reger – Variations and Fugue on “God Save the Queen”
Denis Bédard – Cats at Play
Marcel LAnquetuit – Toccata in D
Madeleine Dring – Caribbean Dance (arr. Setchell)
Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély – Andante in F
*Charles-Marie Widor – Toccata in F

Pipeline Press PP2

*Original Recording from Ode Manu 1539, Sept.1997

This recording, “Resounding Aftershocks”  broke an eight-year silence for the Christchurch Town Hall Rieger organ which followed the catastrophic 2011 earthquakes, and, as befitted the occasion, celebrated the instrument’s return to full prowess in heady fashion! Organist Martin Setchell’s long-established brilliance and elan as a performer is here demonstrated to the utmost thanks to the skills and expertise of the disc’s sound engineer Mike Clayton, capturing the occasion most resplendently. Purely as a sound-spectacle it’s a thrilling experience; and the mix of well-known (Widor’s ubiquitous “Toccata”), sure-fire crowd-pleasers (Guilmant’s Handelian “Grand Choeur”), ear-tickling discoveries and gentler/more humourful moments (Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Chloris” and Denis Bédard’s “Cats at Play”) and out-and-out celebratory free-for-alls (Mons Leidvin Takle’s “Celebration” – a riot of sounds, suitably “cheesy” in places and all the more enjoyable and festive for that), suggests a time for uninhibited listening-pleasure in a variety of shapes and forms, if ever there was one!

Continuing the “resounding” ambiences are JS Bach’s Prelude In G Major BBWV 541 closely followed by the Guilmant “Grand Choeur in D”, suitably subtitled “a la Handel”! Contrasts come with Setchell’s arrangement of Reyaldo Hahn’s son “A Chloris”, before we are thrown back into sterner stuff with Noël Goermanne’s energetic, if somewhat dour, “El Dia de Fiesta” (impressive in its own way, but I think I would have rather been somewhere with a bit more cheerful an aspect!)

Thank goodness for Enrico Bossi’s mischievous Scherzo in G minor immediately afterwards, with its charming antiphonal-like echo effects, and piquant mood-changes wrought by some gorgeously-varied registrations. Bonaventura Somma’s ebullient Toccata in A undoubtedly echoes the sound-world of THE more famous Widor, but fascinates as an engaging variant, all the same, as does Marcel Languetuit’s Toccata in D Major, the textures also remarkably similar to Widor’s, even if the trajectories are differently calibrated! Incidentally, I’m sure the dedicatee to this piece, Albert Dupré, was actually the father of organist MARCEL Dupré, and not “Maurice”, as commented on in the booklet notes!

Louis Vierne’s Romance from his Fourth Organ Symphony straightaway haunted the ear like no other track heard thus far, with an excerpt that seemed to capture the essence of the instrument’s soul more deeply and ambiently than anything else on the CD – a deep well of feeling in the midst of so many sparkling, sunlit fountains and cascading waterfalls. Vierne wrote the work in 1914, in the shadow cast by the oncoming European hostilities, the piece’s darker, more agitated middle section reflecting these tensions and uncertainties in contrast to the serenities of the outer sequences of the music.

Max Reger’s “Variations and Fugue on God Save the Queen” (somewhat oddly written after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901) was included by Setchell to pay due respect to Christchurch’sEnglish heritage, and to honour Queen Elizabeth II, now the British throne’s longest serving monarch. However ill-timed one might think the piece’s original provenance, there’s no doubt it all makes a rather gorgeous and resplendent noise, especially as the music works up to an undeniably sonorous climax! I had never heard of English composer Madeleine Dring, but her “Caribbean Dance” from 1959, as arranged by Setchell, has a lazily attractive rhythm, crunching some unexpectedly bluesy-plus harmonies at one point, before leading  to a suitably insouciant conclusion.

I loved the tremulous Voix humaine’s other-worldly sound in Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély’s Andante in F, a demonstration, incidentally, of one of two new stops “gained” by the refurbished instrument, the other being the Clarinette sound in the transcription of the Hahn song. The piece’s spacious serenity provides the utmost contrast to the opening tones of the long-awaited, tried-and-true favourite, Charles-Marie Widor’s arresting Toccata, from the Fifth of the composer’s organ symphonies, Setchell’s recording , here “lifted” without any signs of wear-and-tear from the organist’s 1997 MANU recording “Let the Pealing Organ Blow” as an appropriate “link” with the instrument’s history, one underlining the “return to life” of one of Christchurch’s most important cultural assets, and further reinforcing the inestimable qualitative value to the city of one of its most illustrious performers.

“Morgen” – pianist Rae de Lisle makes a welcome return to performing, with ‘cellist Andrew Joyce – and with help from Julia Joyce

Songs for ‘Cello and Piano
Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Rae de Lisle (piano)

items marked * with Julia Joyce (viola)

BRAHMS : Liebestreu Op3, No.1 / Minnelied Op.71, No.5 / “Immer leise wird mein Schlummer Op.105 No.2
“Wie melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn” Op.105, No.1 / Sapphische Ode Op.94 No.4
Feldeinsamkeit Op.86 No.2 / Wiegenlied Op.49 No.4
DVORAK: Als die alte Mutter Op.55 No.4 / Lass mich allein Op.82 No.1
REYNALDO HAHN – L’heure exquise / A Chloris    FAURE – Apres un reve Op.7 No.1
SCHUMANN – Widmung Op.25, No.1 / Du bist wie eine Blume Op.25 No.4 / Mondnacht Op.39 No.5
BRAHMS – Zwei Gesange Op.91 – *Gestillte Sehnsucht / *Geistliches Wiegenlied
ERICH KORNGOLD – Marietta’s Lied – “Gluck, das mir verblieb”
SCHUBERT – Du Bist die Ruh Op.59 No.3 / Nacht und Traume Op.43 No.2
ALFREDO CATALANI – Ebben? Ne andro lontana / RICHARD STRAUSS – *Morgen  Op.27 No.4

Atoll Records  ACD 280

This recording has gone to the top of my “play for friends” list!  The beauty and expressiveness of it all instantly captivates whomever I demonstrate the disc to, and never fails to re-ignite my own initial struck-dumb response  – beginning as a “double distillation” of beauty, with Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello and Rae de Lisle’s piano exquisitely duetting their way through vistas of the utmost enchantment, it transforms into a trio when a fellow-traveller, violist Julia Joyce briefly joins the pair for an equally rhapsodic mid-journey sojourn, and then reunites with them right at the end. The recording is, of course, a “family affair”, cellist’ Andrew Joyce being the son-in-law of pianist Rae de Lisle, and violist Julia Joyce her daughter, and the ‘cellist’s partner – whether as a duo or a trio, their combination, on the strength of this recording, produces for this listener an unforgettable amalgam of artistry and feeling.

For pianist Rae de Lisle, this album has meant something of a “return to life” as a performer, having over the past quarter-century been in retirement through injury from her previous career as a successful concert pianist – though never having heard her play “live” I well recall a series of television programmes from around the 1970s featuring her as the soloist in a number of presentations of Beethoven piano concertos, recorded in those halcyon days when people in charge of New Zealand television regarded the arts as a necessary component of what went to air to the public. De Lisle, of course, subsequently became one of the crucial figures involved with fellow-pianist Michael Houstoun’s rehabilitation as a performer after the latter suffered similar injuries, helping him “remodel” his piano technique to a point where he was able to return to public playing. She herself describes in a personal note something of her own process of dealing with injury and her painstaking “retraining” to the point where she could actually make music again, and of her immense joy in being able to collaborate with the talented musicians in her own family!

What was indubitably given to her many piano students over the years of her indisposition poignantly “mirrors” the loss experienced by us in having the quality of pianism such as can be heard on this new CD cruelly denied us over the years. In the course of listening to these treasurable tracks, one readily appreciates – in fact, right from the disc’s beginning (featuring a group of Brahms’ songs given an eloquent introduction with Liebestreu Op.3 No. 1,) – how the “line” of lyrical expression is so unerringly shaped by both instruments, with the piano preparing the ground for the ‘cello in so many subtle ways, in the course of a handful of phrases suggesting and then leading, shaping the way forward and then echoing the fulfilment by the ‘cello of the music’s expressive quality. This piece epitomises the creative interplay at work in so many varied ways throughout the rest of the disc, as does the succeeding Minnelied Op,71 No. 5, demonstrating such exquisite sensibility from both players as to bring tears to the eyes of those susceptible to such things!

Both of the Dvořák settings are “lump-in-the-throat” affairs as realised here, de Lisle bringing out the music’s astringent quality of reminiscence in the piano’s opening to Als die alte Mutter Op 55 No.4, which so sharpens the sensibilities for the hushed quality of what follows, with Joyce’s ‘cello tone fusing the voice of the “mother” with that of the narrator, as the vocal line catches an individual accent or phrase which rivets the attention. And the gentle melancholy of Lasst mich allein Op.82 No.1 speaks volumes in the subtlety with which the minor key-shift deepens the emotion.

There’s insufficient space in which to comment on all of the tracks – but their characterisations by these two artists readily transport the listener into what Robert Schumann called “wondrous regions”, with Schumann’s own music ready to illustrate these magical excursions – the central, beautifully half-lit sequence at the centre of Widmung Op.25 No. 1, for example, followed by a beautifully rapt Du bist wie eine Blume Op.25 No.24, and the more extended, equally hypnotic Mondnacht Op.39 No.5. And, of course, there’s a brief but telling augmented strand contributing its own resonance to the proceedings, in the form of Julia Joyce’s viola, adding its wholly distinctive voice to those of the ‘cello-and-piano duo, in a pair of songs composed by Brahms for the violinist Joseph Joachim, the Zwei Gesange Op.91. The reprise of the first song is a particularly melting sequence, the viola and ‘cello duetting in counterpoint with rapturous accord, while the brighter-eyed setting of the carol “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein” imparts a warmly ritualistic aspect to the musical collaboration, by turns full-throated and gently reassuring.

I ought to mention Andrew Joyce’s astonishingly candid realisation of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied, from the opera Die tote Stadt during which his instrument sings the vocal lines with almost unbearable emotion, “inhabiting” the intensity of characterisation that the music suggests so readily. The disc ends, somewhat less fraughtfully, with another stellar display of string-playing, Julia Joyce’s viola substituting for the usual violin in Richard Strauss’s Morgen Op.27 No.4, the combination triumphantly expressing the essential flavour of the composer’s regard for the voice and his love for his wife, Pauline, in a new day’s blessed context.

Beautifully-balanced, warm and clear recorded sound completes a most attractive issue from “Atoll”.

Third volume of Richard Farrell piano recordings a fascinating collection of till-now unreleased treasures

Richard Farrell recordings for Atoll
Volume 3

CD 1: Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 with the National Orchestra of the NZBS, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (1948)
CD 2: Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat.  Richard Farrell Piano Quartet (Radio Suisse, Zurich, 1956)
Liszt: Transcriptions/reminiscences and original pieces
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F  minor
De Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
CD 3: William Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes (BBC 1957)

Monday 16 December 2019

The third volume of recordings of piano performances by Richard Farrell (1926 – 1958) has appeared, nine years after the first volume. Apart from a couple of small pieces, none have been commercially released though Peter Mechen (who was the assistant producer and undertook research) reminds me that the Tchaikovsky concerto was played by the then Concert Programme in the 1980s and the Liszt recital was broadcast as part of a programme marking the 25th anniversary of Farrell’s death in 1983 as well as sporadically since.

The highlights here are the two piano concertos from the one-year-old National Orchestra in 1948, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (who certain local critics were pleased to routinely excoriate); Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Fantasy Waltzes by William Alwyn.

This final instalment, which consists of three CDs, has been slow emerging since it contains mainly music that has not appeared on commercial recordings (as was the case of the earlier volumes), and its unearthing has been a painstaking and sometimes complex process. The sources have been mainly radio networks: the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (as it was then), the BBC and Swiss Radio. In the light of the all-too-common practice by broadcasters of deleting music thought at the time to be unimportant, it is surprising and significant that these recordings have at last been publicly released.

It’s amazing they even survived!

The first two volumes
The first two-CD volume contained a number of Grieg’s piano works including the Piano Concerto and his Ballade in G minor, selections from the Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces; Brahms’s four Ballades, Op 10, and  several other pieces including the Waltzes of Op 39.

Volume 2 contained Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli and six of his Preludes; a number of pieces by Chopin including the first Scherzo; Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel and some of the Op 119 piano pieces, Liszt’s ‘reminiscences’, ‘paraphrases’ etc on popular pieces by other composers, including the quartet from Rigoletto and Schumann’s Widmung (which reappear now in Volume 3) and other smaller works: Schumann’s Arabesque and pieces by Mendelssohn, Debussy and De Falla.

Tchaikovsky No 1 and Beethoven No 4
The first disc in Volume 3 contains the two piano concertos, recorded in the Auckland Town Hall by the NZBS in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra’s first performance. There is nothing disgraceful about the performance or the recording: it showed a 22-year-old Farrell somewhat inclined to overdramatise the music (if that could conceivably be a fault with this concerto!), occasionally disregarding the orchestra, but compared with the not uncommon tendency for soloists to be a little at odds, tempo-wise and in dynamics, with an orchestra, the flaws are very inconsequential. What is much more interesting is to have (for New Zealanders at any rate) this evidence of the very youthful orchestra and a comparably young, though already internationally acclaimed pianist. Tchaikovsky offers the pianist a commanding start and Farrell responds with unbridled ardour. His playing is typically impetuous, allowing little space between phrases, but these are well contrasted with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in quiet passages. The frequent bravura passages are, nevertheless, not just breath-taking but conspicuously in tune with the music, for example in the episode leading to the peroration at the end of the first movement.

The deficiencies of the recording are perhaps more evident in the meditative second movement where one might have difficulty distinguishing the various woodwinds. I don’t know the size of the string sections in the early orchestra, but the third movement certainly reveals a thinness.

A more successful blending of soloist and orchestra exists in the Beethoven concerto where Farrell clearly responds to the more ‘classical’ character of the earlier work; in fact, I was impressed by the clarity and well-judged high spirits of the Finale, which I found myself thoroughly enjoying.

Schumann Piano Quartet
The recording of the Schumann Piano Quartet by the short-lived Richard Farrell Piano Quartet is very interesting. This recording for Swiss Radio is the only known, surviving recording by the group. The story of the discovery of its existence, the result of the concurrence of people and memories, is nearly as remarkable as the performance itself, which is the only example of Farrell as a consummate chamber musician.

The group was put together by a former member of the Adolph Busch Quartet, cellist Paul Grümmer, in Switzerland in 1956. Remarkably, two of the quartet’s members, violist Eduard Melkus and cellist Ottomar Borwitsky were aged about 90 when this issue was being prepared. They contributed memories of Farrell printed in the CD booklet: interesting, revelatory and amusing.

One might listen to this recording of Schumann’s piano quartet and, given the rarity of permanent piano quartet ensembles, hear the sounds characteristic of string quartets of the era, such as the Budapest or Borodin, the Fine Arts or Amadeus quartets (not to mention the Busch Quartet itself, one of the most famous of all). The sound is partly attributable no doubt to contemporary recording characteristics and quality, and not to be denigrated. So the recording is a treasure; microphones are quite close and the feeling of immediacy, intimacy is enhanced, which would make anything less than perfect articulation and intonation very conspicuous. The opening is warmly meditative, in sharp contrast to the sudden arrival of the Allegro of the first movement revealing admirable ensemble in which no instrument is dominant at any stage; that is no doubt a tribute in part to the engineer almost as much as to the players.

The rest of the second CD is taken by a selection of fairly popular piano pieces: several Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences, the 6th Hungarian Rhapsody and the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa from the Years of Pilgrimage II – Italy.  Excellent performances, at times almost too perfect.

Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes
The third disc is devoted to a real rarity: a set of eleven pieces, Fantasy Waltzes, dedicated to Farrell by British composer William Alwyn. They too were discovered somewhat by chance, traced through the William Alwyn Foundation and the William Alwyn Archive in the Cambridge University Library and recorded by the BBC in 1957. I’d never come across this suite of pieces and a first hearing didn’t make much impression: music of the era – the 1950s – that was not dictated by the strictures of the avant-garde, of serialism; but which did at first seem a bit lightweight, feathery, lacking melodic character: somewhat akin to Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. But on second and later hearings its charming, unpretentious nature has taken root, as the various styles of waltzes are explored, melodies became more appealing and occasional cross-references start to emerge, all creating a more complex and interesting set of pieces.

Exploration of references on the Internet have led me to explore Alwyn’s other music – five symphonies and other orchestral music, four operas, much chamber and piano music as well as around seventy film scores (the NZSO under James Robertson played his second symphony in 1956 in Wellington and Auckland).

You will find an account of the Fantasy Waltzes, inter alia, on a website about a Chandos CD by pianist Julian Milford, in a series devoted to Alwyn; it mentions an earlier recording by John Ogdon, but not, naturally enough, the original dedicatee and first performer, Farrell.

Here is a quote from a review on the website:

“The Fantasy-Waltzes date from 1956-7, inspired by a visit to Grieg’s lakeside home. Almost certainly Alwyn’s best known piano music, this is a dazzling showcase, a work of constant invention which runs the gamut of moods and styles, yet is always unmistakably Alwyn. The pieces do stand alone, even though some end in disconcertingly flippant ways, but become more than the sum of the parts when heard as part of the complete structure. This is a kaleidoscope, a sustained and thoroughly enjoyable work with all the drama, colour and atmosphere one expects from Alwyn. Underneath it all is a smile, the warmth of a romantic who also knew how to have fun, both facets woven together in the spectacular twists and turns of the closing Presto.”

I feel very much the same way about them. The most comprehensive account of the pieces is on the website:

That article lists five recorded performances of the Fantasy Waltzes that were released, which did not of course include Farrell’s which remained in the archive. But it seems to be the only website to mention Farrell and it notes that he had played several of the waltzes in New Zealand before this recording was made (2 June 1957).

All of which confirm one’s impression of their being a rather significant part of the composer’s output that is nowadays rather neglected.

So Volume 3, a very miscellaneous collection of previously unpublished recordings of Farrell’s playing, not only deserves to be better known, but in their different ways reveal performances that are very interesting in themselves: A glimpse of the early NZSO, a fine performance of Schumann’s lovely piano quartet, a group of popular piano pieces that were better known in the 1950s than they are today, as a result of promoters’ avoidance of piano recitals, and the discovery of a group of charming and imaginative pieces by the neglected William Alwyn.

At least one of these diverse aspects should be enough to attract a wide range of music lovers.

This third volume of Farrell CDs can be purchased from Marbecks in Auckland: see their website.