A Cornucopia of musical delights and pianistic thrills from Duo Enharmonics

Wellington Chamber Music  – Sunday Afternoon Concert Series 2024 Duo Enharmonics – Beth Chen and Nicole Chao (piano duo)

J S BACH – “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (from Cantata BWV 106 – arr. György Kurtág)
FRANZ SCHUBERT – Fantasy in F Minor D.940
MAURICE RAVEL – La Valse (arr. Lucien Garban)
JOHN PSATHAS – Fragment (2001)
J.STRAUSS Jnr. – Blue Danube Fantasy (arr. Greg Anderson)

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

Sunday, 7th July, 2024

This concert was a further instalment in the wondrous evolution of my exposure to the astonishing talents of Duo Enharmonics, the piano duo team of Nicole Chao and Beth Chen, the most recent of Wellington Chamber Music’s Sunday Concert Series. Until that sensational presentation I attended almost two years ago, featuring the duo’s performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, I’d been something of a voyeur regarding the talents of these musicians, relying upon enthusiastic reports from other reviewers of things such as the “energy and force” of their “outstanding teamwork” (Steven Sedley, Middle C, September 2020), and especially in regard to music I myself dearly loved, such as Mozart’s KV 381 Duo Sonata, or Ravel’s “La Valse” in a four-hands transcription. Here, now, was a second chance for the word to become flesh for me in musical terms, and especially with the delectable Ravel work on today’s programme!

What struck me with increasing force and intensity as today’s programme unfolded was the sheer depth of musicality of what we heard in both compositional content and its presentation. Any sense  of the four-handed piano repertoire being a “lesser” or even somewhat “contrived” art-form was properly negated by the purity of focus and the surety of vision displayed by the performers in each of the pieces presented. Even in instances such as the transcription of “La Valse”, which one might regard as a lesser entity compared with the orchestral version, I felt the spirit of the latter evoked as surely as if I had been listening to Ravel’s original sound-world.

With the exception of the last piece on the programme, a fantastical four-handed arrangement of Johann Strauss Jnr’s famous “Blue Danube” Waltz by Greg Anderson (of its kind, a stunningly colourful demonstration of the range of sonorities possible on a keyboard played by four hands), the pieces presented today by Nicole Chao and Beth Chen needed no further augmentation as sound for their essential messages to reach out to and enfold our sensibilities – in other words, I found it hard to imagine any of the performances today done better, revelling as I did in the enchantment of each and every recreated moment throughout.

The concert was a model of its kind in terms of the range and scope of the pieces – and it couldn’t have begun more enticingly than with György Kurtág’s arrangement of the beautiful introductory music to JS Bach’s funeral cantata “Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit” (God’s time is the very best time). Begun by the secondo player, Beth Chen, the opening textures were augmented by an intertwined combination of secondo and primo hands, the end result interesting to watch, but absolutely enchanting to listen to – a brief but ravishing introduction to the afternoon’s music-making.

Has anybody composed a more poignant amalgam of conflicting emotions than in the Fantasy in F Minor of Franz Schubert’s? The work’s rolling, undulating Allegro molto moderato opening suggested a vast interior landscape of quiet despair, Nicole Chao and Beth Chen finding a proper “Schubertian pulse” in the music – a brief major-key flirtation prompted more agitated sequences, before the opening returned. The players threw down the gauntlet for the dramatic, almost operatic Largo with its declamatory utterances, double-dotted phrasings and long trills – there was but momentary relief from a more conciliatory episode before the music lurched into an allegro vivace Scherzo, the players performing miracles of varied touch and phrasing by way of conveying the music’s multifaceted mood, bringing out the piquancy of the Trio’s music as a contrast to the almost grim determination of the Allegro vivace. And the dramatic return of the work’s opening music here generated feelings both of reprieve and inexorable futility, the players generating a torment of fugal-like conflict and variance, but all to no avail in the face of the theme’s grim final triumph.

After this, Ravel’s “La Valse” was almost a relief at first for the individual spirit, suggesting, as it did a different, more societal kind of fatalism and dissolution – interesting, though, that, despite the plethora of commentary in the interim suggesting the music as representing the decline of the “old” pre-First World War era of European civilisation, Ravel himself categorically denied any such scheme in his music, stating that the work expresses nothing more than his “intense attraction to these wonderful (waltz) rhythms”….still, this having been said the composer was seriously affected by the horrors of warfare, gleaned from his own personal experiences as a soldier (he was a truck driver and often near the front) as well as the deaths of numerous friends in combat, though stoically managing his grief and despair in works like “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and “La Valse”.

I’d gotten to know this music well in its orchestral guise, ever since hearing the piece at the very first orchestral concert I attended, back in the 1960s! – what a thrill that memory still evokes!  Though unfamiliar with the piano duo version, I felt Nicole Chao’s and Beth Chen’s all-embracing touch uncannily breathed life into those ghostly, inchoate scenarios at the work’s beginning, gradually liberating both form and movement from the “whirling clouds” of the composer’s own description, and bringing various dancing couples into view – and what dancers gradually emerged! – all of them seemingly refracting themselves into “an immense hall, peopled with a whirling crowd”, with every detail of the composer’s recaptured by Lucien Garben’s faithful transcription.

As well as Ravel’s score glitter and glamour we heard its darker, more sinister and grotesque aspects, evident in a couple of the dance’s more disruptive sequences, and calling for some spectacularly-essayed keyboard figurations from both ends of the sound-spectrum before order was restored and the music continued. From beneath the seemingly tireless and supercharged fingers of the duo the waltz displayed all of its glamour, allure, charm and coquettishness, recovering anew from whatever irruption bubbled up from beneath the music’s surfaces – but suddenly  reaching the point at which it realised its moments of glory were numbered and the game was up! The music gathered itself from within and transformed its hitherto lilting rhythms into thrusting, flailing gestures signifying death-and-glory oblivion. Our pianists seemed transfigured at this point, imbued with this same all-or-nothing spirit and with flailing arms and fingers pushing and thrusting themselves, the music and us into a vortex of chaos and confused silence, hammered home by those apocalyptic final chords! Sensational stuff!

Judicious programming gave us the interval to recover from the onslaught; and the two pianists themselves re-emerged differently garbed and with their primo and secondo roles reversed,  Nicole Chao as secondo beginning a piece by New Zealand-Greek composer John Psathas, called Fragment, originally written for two marimbas – beautifully-modulated repeated chords made a hypnotic effect, which the entry of the primo player, Beth Chen attenuated with birdsong-like notes, together creating a kind of “moment in time” stillness, a kind of aural metaphor of solitariness, but with awareness of a surrounding environment rather than mere emptiness – by the piece’s end the different elements seemed to have merged, with either the solitary individual subsumed by the surroundings or the ambience enhancing or elongating,  or even being redefined by the presence of the “new” element, perhaps a redefinition of sorts reading  “To be solitary is to………”.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op.11 was new to me, but had especially excited my interest with its relatively early composition date, 1893 – two years before the completion of the composer’ First Symphony, which had its disastrous premiere in 1897. I’ve long believed that the failure of the first Symphony had an adverse long-term effect on the composer’s compositional abilities, and have accordingly been interested in hearing anything he wrote before the symphony’s first performance. For me, this work bore out that view, in that the pieces exuded the kind of confidence and originality of a young composer who hadn’t yet been told that his work was a failure (as Rachmaninov was to experience to a devastating degree in 1897 after the symphony’s first unfortunate performance).

In six movements, the Op.11 set began with a Barcarolle in G Minor, built simply from a rocking rhythm at the outset, with a melodic line that patiently builds an elongated and fruitful utterance whose central section spontaneously breaks into amazing filigree figurations which briefly return as a potent echo at the piece’s ending. The second piece, Scherzo, has a mischievous, almost devil-may-care insouciance, requiring incredible virtuosity as well as a quixotic, tongue-in-cheek sense of  fun – a great piece! The Theme Russe was simpler, more soulful and melancholic, its theme given various accompaniments, incorporating thunderous octave-scales, whirling figurations and grand and celebratory, imperial-like chordal passages. Next came a Valse, more salon-like than Chopin’s, with some cheeky descant counterpoints and some gorgeous AWOL harmonies, including a “wrong modulation” ending to boot!  A darkly passionate, somewhat obsessive Romance revealed a young composer unafraid to express his feelings – and the last of the pieces was Slava, which rather wonderfully used the well-known Russian “choral theme” from Musorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”, Rachmaninov indulging in his obvious love for church bells of all different kinds. These near-thunderous sonorities came to dominate the latter stages of the piece, the playing making the precincts of St. Andrews ring with more-than-usually-Slavic intensities!

Fittingly, the concert’s final item was the duo’s act of homage to the astounding Piano Duo team of Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson which had toured New Zealand in 2018, and whose Wellington concert I had the good fortune to attend as well. Certainly, the choice by Nicola Chao and Beth Chen of one of the American duo’s “calling card” items as today’s concert finale indicated that the Duo Enharmonics pair had little to fear from any comparison, and the latter’s performance here in my mind put the seal on that viewpoint. The astonishing “Blue Danube Fantasy” obviously represented the ”display” aspect of a two-piano combination, of which Chao and Chen proved entertainingly more than capable; but the rest of the programme brought to the fore the pair’s musicianship of a deeper, and more satisfying kind, making their activities on our behalf something of an ongoing treasure to be cherished and deeply valued.


Andrew Joyce and Jian Liu – a masterclass in ‘Cello and Piano

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Andrew Joyce (‘cello) and Jian Liu (piano).

J.S. Bach – Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano (BWV1029)
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Six Studies in English Folk Song
Dorothy Buchannan – Soliloquy for Two
Fang Dongqing – Lin Chong
Paul Hindemith – Phantasiestuck in B Major, Op. 8 No. 2
Johannes Brahms – Sonata No. 2 in F Major
Sergei Rachmaninoff. Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor. Op 19. III. Andante

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 9th June, 2024

There’s something reassuring about watching professionals at work. I’m not sure if “reassurance” is the right word, exactly, but I certainly felt some sense of content awe on Sunday, knowing that I was listening to an excellent performance of beautiful music. I adore watching performers of all levels, but there is something special about sitting back and letting the consummate professionals take care of everything.

It was a typical windy Wellington day, so I was very appreciative of the heating in St Andrews. Unfortunately, I sat behind a rather tall audience member, so my view of the cellist, Andrew Joyce, was a tad obscured. Andrew gave a comprehensive introduction to the programme, explaining the poetic background to Buchannan’s piece, the angular sounds of Hindemith and the Romantic ending with Brahms.

From the moment Jian and Andrew begin playing, you know you’re in for a treat of musical excellence. Starting off with Bach’s Sonata in G Minor, the Vivace was energetic and vibrant. It was nice to see the difference in how the two musicians actually moved. Andrew moved his head rhythmically, with a typical cellist intensity, while Jian sort of bobbed along to the piano. I don’t know what it is about a musician’s movement that fascinates me, but I can’t help but notice it. It’s genuinely enjoyable for me when performers actually move with the music. The adagio was rich and moving, with lovely use of vibrato, and gorgeous, even playing on piano. The trills brought a particular tension to the piece which I really enjoyed. The allegro was light and playful, with a great dialogue of call and response. The building of parts and dynamics was rich, and there was never a moment of stillness. The final note of the piece was accompanied by murmurs of awe from the audience.

The Six Studies in English Folk Song followed Bach. I didn’t realise that these studies would be so short, although I probably should’ve inferred that from the title. The adagio, ‘Lovely on the Water’, was very different from the Bach, but absolutely lovely, with a gorgeous, whole sound from the cello. The andante sostenuto, ‘Spurn Point’, felt very romantic: not the movement, but the lovey-dovey feeling, with really nice higher notes. The larghetto, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, had a deep, almost mournful quality. It felt like the homeward journey of knights after a battle. The lento, ‘She Borrowed Some of her Mother’s Gold’, was lovely, a sort of deep honey. The andante tranquillo, ‘The Lady and the Dragon’, was elegant, gentle and genteel. There was a great moment where the cello faded and the piano took over. I wrote down “a lovely brocade” in my notes. I’m not entirely sure what I meant by that, but it sounds nice. The allegro vivace, ‘As I walked over London Bridge’, was playful and intense, with great ending dynamics.

As a slight devotee to literature, I was very intrigued by Buchannan’s Soliloquy for Two, as it’s based on Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road not Taken’. The melody felt philosophical, with a sort of pondering quality to it, while the piano walked along the road, steady but light. There was a lovely clarity of sound in this piece, with both parts balanced evenly in the church’s acoustics.

At the start of the concert, Andrew said some parts of Dongqing’s piece were almost “unplayable.” I was unsure what he meant at first, as it started smooth and lyrical, with some surprising moments of intensity from the piano. However, then there were suddenly lower strings and harmonics, along with pizzicatos, and I understood his starting comments. The speed of the runs were amazing, with intense double stops and pizzicatos. There was really great duo work from Jian as he looked over at Andrew for the right timing of angry chords, adding a real dynamism to the performance. It was not at all where I expected the piece to go. After this intensity, the piece went back to a lovely, quieter melody, and then finished with an attack. It was the piece I wrote down the most for because of how much was happening. It was incredible, I could barely keep up in my notebook.

After the interval, there was Hindemith’s Phantasiestuck. It was beautifully Romantic, a tad unexpectedly so from Hindemith. As mentioned at the start, there were moments with some “angular” sounds, particularly with the unexpected intervals next to an otherwise soaring melody.

The Brahms Sonata was a superb. The allegro vivace had beautiful swells of dynamics. So much was going in this movement, with intense double stopping, then feather-light bowing, then a deep and full melody. The adagio affettuoso had a lovely start with the pizzicato and piano. There was a real sense of movement from Jian on the piano, along with the lovely vibrato from Andrew at the end. The “schero-like” (as noted by the programme) intensity and vibrance of the allegro passionata was brilliant. The allegro molto had a quiet and joyful intensity that built as it continued. The technical skill of these musicians was just amazing. To be honest, I was too swept up by Brahms to write more.

After a rapturous applause, we got treated with the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, as a little excerpt from their other programme. It’s a classic piano and cello piece, and was lovely to hear live and done so superbly, especially after being on my playlist of favourite Cello pieces for a few years.

I really cannot stress enough how brilliant this concert was. Every note was perfect, the energy was palpable, and the audience was swept away. If you ever get the chance to see Andrew Joyce and Jian Liu perform, I strongly urge you to take full advantage of it.

Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” – an operatic transfiguration

New Zealand Opera presents:
MANSFIELD PARK– an opera by Jonathan Dove (composer) and Alasdair Middleton (librettist)
Based on the novel “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen (published 1814)
Director: Rebecca Meltzer
Wardrobe and Props: Sophie Ham
Piano Accompaniment: Soomin Kim and David Kelly
Stage Manager: Chanelle Muirhead
Production: courtesy Waterperry Opera Festival, UK
Cast: Fanny Price – Ashlyn Tymms
Lady Bertram – Kristin Darragh
Sir Thomas Bertram – Robert Tucker
Maria Bertram – Sarah Mileham
Julia Bertram – Michaela Cadwgan
Edmund Bertram – Joel Amosa
Aunt Norris – Andrea Creighton
Mary Crawford – Joanna Foote
Henry Crawford – Taylor Wallbank
Mr. Rushworth – Andrew Grenon

Wellington Public Trust Hall
Lambton Quay, Wellington

Thursday 18th April 2024

First staged in 2011, composer Jonathan Dove’s and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s adventurous adaptation of Jane Mansfield’s novel “Mansfield Park” has since achieved world-wide exposure, eventually finding its way to what author Adrienne Simpson once called “opera’s farthest frontier”, the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand, the work taking pride of place as the first 2024 production staged by New Zealand Opera.

It occupies territory close to the heart of the company’s recently-appointed general director, Brad Cohen, whose vision centres upon “getting a wider range of people to attend the opera” by diversifying the various presentation spaces and enlarging the scope of the repertoire in a “something for everybody” manner. It’s a philosophy straightaway borne out by the “outside-the-box” delivery that characterises this latest production, which is, of course, very much in line with the original story’s essentially domestic setting.

Mansfield Park has an ensemble of ten on-stage singers (an audience member makes a brief appearance as a non-singing “extra” at one point) accompanied by a piano duet, everybody occupying a shared space in the same room (the venue on this occasion Wellington’s Public Trust Hall), and with the performers making entrances and exits from and towards various directions including through the audience itself, creating a vibrantly inclusive ambience for all concerned to enjoy. Nothing more removed from the usual operatic scenario of stage, proscenium archway and auditorium, all clearly delineated, could have been imagined.

Composer Jonathan Dove has since recast the work with a chamber orchestra accompaniment, but I hugely enjoyed the omnipresent sound of the original piano duet (here superbly realised by Soomin Kim and David Kelly), the pair completely out of my view from where I was sitting mid-hall, but whose pianistic ambiences unfailingly conjured up the largely drawing-room atmosphere of most of the story’s action. The music might have occasionally seemed “vocally minimalist” or suggestive of “silent film” accompaniment – but the score’s different, more thoughtful or even grandly epic evocations in other places were etched in just as surely and atmospherically. I kept on thinking about the composer telling us that he recalled moments of “hearing music” when first reading parts of the novel, and how we might be hearing the results of those reimagined moments.

I was grateful for the production’s use of subtitles, despite the opera being in English – I’d found in various “opera in the vernacular” performances the text often suffering from a lack of clarity in places. Fortunately I found this cast particularly well-drilled in this respect, and especially in the case of singers such as Andrea Creighton as the voluble Aunt Norris, even when having a lot to say in a short time! Also exemplary in this respect were Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh as the parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram – and I must mention the special pleasure I derived from Andrew Grenon’s vivid word-characterisations as the bumbling Mr. Rushworth!

So, within the elegant frame of what would have otherwise been something like an original Gainsborough-like landscape oil painting on the drawing-room wall appeared the opera’s libretto, written by Alasdair Middleton. The action was divided into two acts containing altogether eighteen “chapters” (Austen’s original novel has over forty of the latter!). The cast itself announced the name and number of each chapter, with the setting, aside from a couple of al fresco forays into “wilderness”, “shrubbery” and “grottoes”, largely taking place in Mansfield Park’s stylish interior. It all had a surface charm “mirroring” the emphasis placed on social climbing and material expectation in society, to which young people’s affairs of the heart were constantly shaped and manipulated.

The heroine of the piece, Fanny Price, has a “back-story” in the novel that’s here hardly touched upon – and then in the most negative terms by her widowed Aunt Norris – she seems to be constantly berating Fanny for her lack of “ostensible” gratitude to her rich Aunt and Uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, for taking her into the household at all to relieve the pressure on Fanny’s own family. There’s a lot going in in the Bertram household, with Sir Thomas having a business in Antigua which takes him away from his four children, all of whom are looking either for suitable careers (the boys, one of whom , Tom, doesn’t appear in the opera) or marriage-matches (the girls, one of whom, Maria, is already engaged to the wealthy but exceedingly boring Rushworth!).

Fanny’s covert interest is in the younger brother, Edmund, who, unlike his sisters, treats her kindly, but as he would a kid-sister for most of the time. Of course, the pair finally make good their largely unspoken deeper interest in one another, despite the various cajoleries of a neighbouring and outwardly attractive brother-and-sister pair, Mary and Henry Crawford who arrive on the scene early in the piece to disrupt things for their own ends. The production cleverly cuts through this and more besides of the elaborate and complex Austen original, thanks to some judiciously- focused textual distillations and sharply-characterised, forward-driving music.

Director Rebecca Meltzer originally created this production for Waterperry Opera in Oxford, UK in 2018, resulting in her being invited here to direct the production with NZ Opera. Her fondness for working with singers in intimate audience environments was readily evident in the detailed delivery given the texts by the cast. As well, her direction of the opera’s “outdoor” scenes (such as the hilariously-contrived journey of the company to the estate of Mr.Rushworth at Southerton in the “barouche”, and the deployment of people not in the scene as characters but instead as “stage-props”, such as trees and gateways!) caused plenty of merriment.

We also relished the sensitive treatment of the more lyrical chorus-like moments in the work, like the almost Mozartean farewell (one thought of Soave sia il vento in Cosi fan Tutte) accorded Sir Thomas from the ensemble on his departure to Antigua, and the lovely “Stargazing” music duetted between Fanny and Edmund in Chapter Six. At the other expressive end of the work’s range was the wonderful scene “A Newspaper Paragraph” in which the general ensemble seemed to revolve like a flywheel around the sensational newspaper publication of Henry’s elopement with Mrs Rushworth, the characters gradually splintering off in different directions and leaving Edmund at last able to come to his senses regarding Mary Crawford’s true character via HER reaction to the news – fabulous musical theatre! – (but more about the work’s final chorale in a minute……)

In the title role of Fanny, mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms looked, moved and sang with ease, grace and decorum as befitted her character and station in the Bertram household (Sophie Ham’s costumes beautifully modulated across the entire cast), though she allowed her emotions to betray her feelings given the chance, as when steadfast in her refusing to comply with Sir Thomas’s wishes that she should accept Henry Crawford as a husband. Her and Edmund’s final vows of commitment to one another were all the more touching for their “surprised by joy” aspect and given all due warmth of tone by both singers. As Edmund, Joel Amosa looked and sounded all the while steadfast, straightforward and upright, even if his head had been turned by the all-too superficially engaging Mary, whose portrayal brought forth resplendent and characterful singing from Joanna Foote.

Mary’s rakish brother Henry received a confident, swashbuckling rendering from Taylor Wallbank even if I felt some of his higher notes evinced a degree of strain. In the pathetic and thankless role of Mr Rushworth, I thought Andrew Grenon’s characterisation brilliantly and almost painfully engaging, as was his singing. As for the remainder of the Bertrams, both Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh brought an ease of vocal delivery to their roles that itself gave their characters a kind of status and authority as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, in stark contrast to Andrea Creighton’s waspish and petulant yet wonderfully sung Aunt Norris, a thorn in her niece’s side as of her own god-given right! And each of the two sisters, the “twelve thousand-a-year-obsessed” Maria, and the younger, impressionable and impetuous Julia were played with characterful spirit and sung with attractive tones and well-crafted “surface” by Sarah Mileham and Michaela Cadwgan respectively.

What brought home to me an enduring feeling of the production’s depth and resonance of quality and truth was the opera’s final scene – after all Fanny’s trials and tribulations, endured with the utmost steadfastness, she is rewarded by the love she has wanted for herself for some time, that of Edmund Bertram. Austen celebrates her Fanny’s ultimate triumph somewhat matter-of-factly in the novel, whereas the composer and librettist of the opera obviously felt the need for some kind of outward catharsis, at any rate on Fanny’s part, and by extrapolation, on Edmund’s as well. So, at the end is the most beautiful of the opera’s sequences, with all the characters of the story, family, friends, villains and monsters alike gathering in a group on the stage to intone these beautiful words – not Austen’s own, but the librettist’s, speaking, as it were, for all of us who have been through the experience afforded in all of its forms by this remarkable work:
“Too soon falls the dusk,
Too soon comes the dark;
Let us learn to love, laugh and live –
at Mansfield Park!”

Intermezzi for the Ages from Rattle Records – Michael Houstoun plays Brahms

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

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 added 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 “Write symphonies? – who, me?” – an aspect which belies the mastery of the whole, and brings the musical journey to a most satisfying conclusion.

Musical and pianistic distinction from Michael Houstoun at Waikanae

Michael Houstoun (piano)

BACH (transcr. LISZT) – Organ Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542
LISZT – Two Concert Studies S.145 “Waldesrauschen” (Forest Murmurs) and “Gnomenreigen” (Dance of the Gnomes)
LISZT – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude) – No. 3 from “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses”
GAO PING – Outside the Window (Four Pieces)
CHOPIN – Piano Sonata No. 3 Op.58

Waikanae Memorial Hall
Saturday, 23rd March 2024

Fresh from reviewing Michael Houstoun’s remarkable disc for Rattle Records of Brahms’s Intermezzi for solo piano, I was suitably primed for a live encounter with the pianist in more varied repertoire, which took place at Waikanae as the second of the Music Society’s 2024 concert series.

This presentation consisted firstly of the music of Liszt, featured here as both composer and transcriber, and succeeded by a second half contrasting a contemporary work by Chinese composer Gao Ping with a standard Romantic “classic’’ by Chopin. I thought the blurb accompanying the recital aptly described the afternoon’s programme with the description “appealing and well-crafted”.

Houstoun has always been a staunch advocate of Franz Liszt’s music, with playing whose direct honesty and steadfast inquiry readily brings out the deeper, more intellectual aspects of the composer as well as his undeniable (and often-maligned as superficial) brilliance. As a piece of advocacy of what Liszt was capable of achieving as an all-round musician, the pianist’s choice of the latter’s transcription of JS Bach’s magnificent organ work the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542 was truly inspired – here was the original composer’s grandeur and well-honed complexity sublimely rendered through a different medium, perhaps reflecting Liszt’s own mastery of the organ as much as his ability to reproduce different kinds of sonority on the piano.

I particularly enjoyed the expressive turns of Houstoun’s playing throughout the opening Fantasy, delivering for us all of the music’s arresting declamations, momentums, lyricisms and introversions – then came the Fugue (more familiar to me than the opening of the work), but whose progress was then unexpectedly halted by a malfunctioning of the player’s electronic screen! We were impressed as much as anything by Houstoun’s completely unflappable reaction in spontaneously describing to his agog audience, how it “had gone absolutely blank!”, before making the necessary technical adjustment and then beginning the Fugue again, the music running its course this time round through to that wonderful moment where Liszt’s writing evokes something of the extra sonorities of the organ pedals at the work’s majestic conclusion.

The two contrasting Concert Etudes S.145 followed, the first, Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs) notable for beautiful colourings at the beginning marked by the contrastings of the piece’s single sonorous melody line with filigree-like decorative colouristic and rhythmic impulses themselves borne on the melody’s trajectory through the piece’s soundscape. Houstoun worked the music up to a brilliant effervescence of interaction between melody and decoration before the elements seeme to dissolve into one another at the conclusion. The second Etude, Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) brings out a mordant wit in the pianist’s characterisation of the dancers, as much rustic as elfin in their scampering movements.

Different realms next awaited the listener with one of Liszt’s masterpieces, the beatifically-named Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude), one of a set of ten pieces together called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (S.173), written in 1847 after being inspired by verses written by the poet Alphonse de Lamartine. While its pre-eminence in the set has resulted in the other pieces being unjustly overshadowed, it’s nevertheless deserving of such an honour, as emphasised all over again by Houstoun’s breathtakingly luminous performance – from the outset every note seemed transcendentally certain of its place, every impulse of movement pre-ordained, every colouration of tone glowing from the sounds themselves, as the music proclaimed an ever-burgeoning expression of deepening spiritual ecstasy felt by a soul in communion with God. The music reached a climax, paused to contemplate the realms that had been opened – “Whence comes, O my God, this peace that floods over me?” were the words of de Lamartine that Liszt wrote at the head of the score – and then even more intensely and urgently reiterated the journey, repeating the climax with increased fervour and near-overwhelming surety. After this the sounds gently and peacefully returned us to our lives. Suffice to say that Houstoun’s playing fully enabled these impressions, conveying what seemed to be total commitment to the music’s “transportings of delight”, and the peace wrought by such a journey. We welcomed the interval at such a juncture!

The second half took a more divergent course at first, with music by the Chinese composer Gao Ping, whose career brought him to New Zealand as a performer and teacher, and whose music has been taken up enthusiastically by local performers such as Houstoun, the New Zealand String Quartet and the New Zealand Trio. Gao Ping’s work for solo piano Outside the Window was written for a talented 11 year-old Beijing pianist, Zhang Si-Yin, and dedicated, in the composer’s words, ‘to the people who remain a child at heart”.

Houstoun’s spoken Introduction to the piece established a strong link with the composer and his music, which was borne out by the playing – the opening “On the Way” gave us sounds of a suitably meandering character with stops and starts and different kinds of trajectories (and perhaps even a tumble at one point?), depending upon one’s fancies. The second piece “Chorus of Fire Worms” was even more fanciful, to the point of being schizoid, refrains interrupted by dexterous fingerworked passages. The third “Clouds” gave us more movement and figuration than I expected, with textures beset by decorative filigree passages and heavier, more monumental tones – a busy, crowded sky! Finally, the title “Tiao Pi Jin” referred to a girl’s game of “dancing on fixed rubber bands”, a perpetuum-mobile work in what sounded like 5/4 time, and not unlike NZ composer Philip Dadson’s “Sisters’ Dance” in places with its whirring, mouse-on-a-wheel figures – a momentary impasse late in the music briefly halted the flow, which picked up to deliver the piece’s final, insouciant moment!

Then came the piece to which all the pathways of the afternoon were leading – Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata in B Minor, a landmark of romantic piano composition from an era whose spell continues to exert its thrall to this day. Houstoun stayed not upon the order of his going, but plunged into the work’s opening flourishes with a will, making grand capital out of all the music’s opportune moments of declamation and energy, before a lyrical (and wonderfully extended) second subject seemed to say all that could be said – then, and unlike with most of the performances I have on record, we found ourselves here plunged excitingly into the exposition repeat, adding to the work’s truly heroic character!

With hardly a pause to draw breath at the movement’s conclusion, Houstoun then whirled our sensibilities into the vertiginous figurations of the scherzo, a most exhilarating ride which abruptly ceased with a shout of elation and a quixotic transformation into something resembling a kind of gondola-song whose elusive serenities had a suggestibility which was readily gathered in once again by the scherzo’s vigorously renewed freewheeling attentions.

I thought Houstoun forged the link between the scherzo and the succeeding Largo with tremendous conviction (somewhere in my youthful musical memory is a popular song or dance that uses those same eight declamatory notes that begin the movement, but I simply can’t recall any title or lyrics which would identify it for me!)…..giving the stately dance that grows out of the transition a natural tranquility, though I found myself wanting the subsequent flowing sostenuto passages to sound a shade more limpid and diaphanous, as if the sounds were coming from out of the air as it were – still, with the return of the stately dance passage the initial crepuscular beauties were restored and honour satisfied.

With the finale of course, the pianist was completely in his element, carrying his audience with him through the various reprised surgings of the principal theme and the dancing energies of the glittering running passages, and riding the crest of the music’s excitement right to the final keyboard flourishes and conclusive chordings, after which we applauded until our hands were tingling. To help us properly return to our lives, Houstoun gave us a further helping of the music of Gao Ping, a work called “Wandering”, a lovely, truly ambient Debussian/Ravelian piece of delight and wonderment. But what a recital it was! – music and piano-playing of lasting distinction!

CD review – Guitarist Matthew Marshall’s “Brighter than Blue’ contains rich and varied rewards

Music by Philip Norman, Anthony Ritchie and Kenneth Young

Matthew Marshall (guitar)

with Carol Hohauser (flute)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)
Tessa Petersen (violin)
Sir Jon Trimmer (reciter)
Dame Kate Harcourt (reciter)


Guitarist Matthew Marshall conceived the idea for this beautifully-presented 2020 RATTLE CD album as long ago as 2016 – and for some reason and another it’s taken me as long (2024) to find the opportunity to write something about it. What gave my own inclinations the impetus needed was the most recent of a series of heartfelt public tributes prompted by the untimely death (October 2023) of dance legend Sir Jon Trimmer, who had been associated with Marshall in one of the works on this recording as a reciter of Alastair Campbell’s poetry. Marshall had spoken and performed at each of the two tribute events to Sir Jon I had attended, and had, at the most recent one (organised by the distinguished dance critic Jennifer Shennan) drawn particular attention to the great man’s willingness to participate in different artistic activities with the same commitment and attention to detail as he had to dancing.

Marshall also attributed his own varied collaborations with the different artists on this recording to Trimmer’s example, with the latter’s suggestion resulting in the work by Philip Norman on the disc – It’s Love, Isn’t It?, which was first performed in Dunedin in 2017 with Sir Jon and actress Tina Retgien reading certain of both Alistair and Meg Campbell’s poems. The work is one of a number of works commissioned by Marshall from various composers, and all here are world premiere recordings.

The CD begins with an earlier work, Tense Melodies (1981, rev.2016) for flute and guitar by Philip Norman, featuring Marshall duetting with flutist Carol Hohauser. There are six pieces, originally written by Norman as incidental music for two Christchurch theatrical productions during the early 1980s. It’s interesting to learn that the first four of these are drawn from from incidental music for a 1980 Court Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, while the fifth is an adaptation of a song from a 1981 production of Ken Hudson’s play for the Canterbury Children’s Theatre, The Revenge of Badsky. The final piece was intended as a “rounding off” piece for the set’s publication that year, one re-evoking the “tense” aspect of the title as referring more throughout to a juxtaposition of past and future, rather than any “highly strung” mood. The set was first performed in 1995 by Marshall and Hohauser on a national Chamber Music NZ tour, and then revised in 2016 in preparation for this recording.

The opening track “Piangevole” has an engaging, plaintive-sounding “Once upon a time” feel to its brief, if sombre storybook manner, the recording beautifully realising the characteristic sound-quality of both instruments. The following folk-like “Cantabile” deliciously animates the line with its rhythmic “snap” evoking a highland kind of feeling, one which the third piece “Tempo rubato” straightaway dispels with the guitar’s jarring opening notes and the flute’s anguished rejoiner, the two continuing a strained, canonic sequence of confrontation and avoidance which ends in what seems like a kind of impasse, the guitar finishing with a quixotic “have it your way” spread chord that dissolves into silence. Whatever one makes of the following “Animato”, the piece balances both delight and determination with a spirited dance, the instrumental lines leaping between harmony and discord in suggestive rather than combatative ways. There’s something French-sounding about the “Dolento” which follows, a dignified processional whose feeling hints at its purpose without actually stating it, and certainly avoiding resolution. And the final, whirlwind “Con Moto” has a breathless delight whose angularities send one’s senses home afterwards wondering whether it had all been a kind of fevered dream – it’s all certainly a set of pieces to enjoy as much in unfettered surrender as delight in curiosity.

Anthony Ritchie’s piece Autumn Moods which follows adjusts the listener’s focus towards a different time and place, with a kind of elemental earth-awakening from pulsating cello tones, which are then joined with chiming guitar notes – how gently and beautifully the cello’s dark cantabile line rises from the gloom and engages the guitar in winsome responses. Impulsively the guitar initiates movement, gracefully bearing the cello’s supple line on its back as the music moves through the different autumnal shades of light and gloom, the music’s flow strengthening and quickening as the two instrumental voices intertwine and reach an expressive climax – from this both of the voices wend their way back through their newly-discovered soundscapes musing contentedly over their journeyings together.

Having enjoyed the ready bonhomie displayed between different instrumental voices in the first two items, I found Kenneth Young’s 1978 Suite in three movements for violin and guitar something of a different proposition. The first piece began with a thoughtful, largely pensive “Andante moderato” whose opening was dominated by the guitar, and with Tessa Petersen’s violin something of a “shadowy presence” up until the instrument seemed to “find its voice’ with an expressive mid-movement outburst of feeling. The violin seemed then to re-enter its “world of shadows’’, the music returning to the “Andante moderato” guitar-dominated mood, the violin diffidently repeating a brief and sombre four-note phrase which we’d previously heard before the instrument’s “big moment”……a bleak and insistent Adagio follows, one whose remorseless intensities don’t let up, even across a kind of interlude in which the place we’ve been taken to by the music gives little joy, and despairingly rebegins the opening trudge to its end.

The final movement, Moderato sostenuto, offers little relief from the gloom, the violin line bringing to mind for me a child’s loneliness in an orphanage, wanting to make sense of his or her isolation and craving any kind of quasi-parental warmth. So, a challenging piece, one which I found at first hearing difficult to like – it took my sensibilites into increasingly cheerless vistas from the second movement onwards, the music’s rhythmic shackles unrelieved by any feeling generated from the melodic content. Of course, having been an admirer of Kenneth Young’s work in the past I’m obviously determined to revisit these exacting pieces and give them another try – it won’t be the first time I’ve gone through such a process in my listening…..

Still, what a different world we seemed then to enter, as if rescued from these oppressive strains, by firstly, the sounds of a vast ocean doing its age-old thing, and then the brimful-warmth of the voices of, firstly, Sir Jon Trimmer and then Dame Kate Harcourt, bringing to flesh-and-blood life the first of Alistair and Meg Campbell’s poems that the two exchanged over years of marriage, fifteen of which Philip Norman had chosen to accompany in alternation with music, drawing his title It’s Love, Isn’t It? from the verses’ first publication in 2008.

Listening to those two beautifully-modulated and winningly-phrase voices picking their separate-but-together ways through the ups and downs of a marriage made for a heart-rending experience, here discreetly (and appropriately) flavoured by Philip Norman’s music, to which Matthew Marshall responds with playing of crystalline simplicity. The first poem “Wild Honey” here takes the verse from Alistair’s original “Wild Honey” about Meg (here delivered ardently by Jon Trimmer), and fuses it with one from the latter’s poetry (spoken more reflectively by Kate Harcourt) – words affirming in the former’s case a ”charged” lovemaking memory, and in the latter’s a life-long love. Philip Norman’s music makes much of simplicity, the emotion largely reflected in a kind of “impulsive tranquility.”

Throughout, there’s a chameleon-like response to the vagaries of emotion laid out by the various poems from both reciters, which the music mirrors, the latter rather more abstractly for the most part in a “variations on a theme” way – though I was especially taken by the play of surface ripples and darker undercurrents in pieces like “Brown Peahen”, “To Rid Myself of You”, and “To a Young Girl”, where the music in each case teases out the nooks and crannies of a relationship under stress – the “funkiness” of the music for “To a Young Girl”, for instance, presented for our edification an age-old stimulus, however illicit.

There’s also a mythic strand which occasionally vibrates in both words and music, in fairy-tale fashion in “The Way Back” which reworks the Hansel and Gretel story as a kind of deliverance of the boy from the temptations of the Witch; and in more dreamlike, chimerical fashion in “Gift of Dreams” there are fancies and imaginings of Nature bending to the human will in the music speaking as the natural world with its patterns and cadences.

Gathering these various fluctuations into almost metaphysical being is “A Confession”, where love in a youthful abstract is linked to an actual embodiment, an outpouring whose words echo John Donne’s “A Dream of Thee”, with the music’s beautiful, self-generating sense of that same eventual embodiment. The “Bee of Anger” which follows runs a gamut of a woman’s anger at her partner’s self-evident fantasies – the music here suitably tortured, twisted and self-inflicting – before turning inwards towards the following “Resistance”, in which a simple hibiscus flower re-ignites the power of love and its essential preservation, as represented by petals pressed into a book and their beauties  captured as an essence in the words “Love is not ending”. And, to conclude, there’s “Tidal”, a valediction by the poet for his wife, written and then given to the winds and the ocean to bear the words as nature might bear feelings of love – the music is also valedictory, rising at the end to hover, resonate and pass – very moving.

So, a recording to savour for a number of reasons – undoubtedly a heart-warming souvenir of two of New Zealand’s most distinguished performers in their fields coming together to make the creative word flesh in language terms – and thanks to the advocacy of one of the country’s most skilled musicians in collaboration with several equally talented colleagues, this Rattle disc has achieved a coup of both creative and recreative distinction – long may it continue to give the greatest of pleasure!



Worlds within and alongside worlds – solo and duo pianists Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon at Waikanae

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Minor Op.13 “Pathetique”
LISZT – Petrarch Sonett No.104 “Pace non trovo” (from Annees de Pelerinage – Deuxième année: Italie)
BARTOK – Roumanian Dance Op.8a No. 1
MAHLER (arr. piano duo by Bruno Walter) Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon –  solo and duo pianists

Waikanae Memorial Hall,

Sunday 11th February, 2024

The enterprising Duo Piano pair of Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon gave a moderately-sized but enthusiastic audience plenty of thrills in the opening programme of the 2024 Waikanae Music Society’s Concert Season, combining a first half of solo piano works with a most enticing novelty, a transcription for piano duet of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony in an arrangement made by one of the composer’s most ardent disciples and greatest interpreters, Bruno Walter.

The music of the Symphony and its performance here were, both for people like myself familiar with the orchestral version, and for those coming to the work for the first time, a revelation, judging from the reaction at the concert’s end of those who sat all around where I was situated – shouts of approval and exhalations of amazement of all kinds abounded, which must have gratified the two by then well-nigh exhausted players who had given their all over the best part of the previous hour!

No less captivating in content and variety was the concert’s first half, in effect a mini-solo recital by Dénes Várjon which featured works by Beethoven, Liszt and Bartok. Spanning over a century of keyboard innovation and romantic expression, Dénes Várjon brought to each of the three pieces a powerhouse technique, a romantic sensibility and a neo-ethnic awareness of rediscovery which underlined both the music’s contemporary and on-going importance and significance.

Though Beethoven’s Op.13 “Pathetique” Sonata would have sounded even more revolutionary to both contemporary and present-day ears if played on an instrument of the composer’s time, Várjon’s delivery of the opening movement splendidly “threw down the gauntlet” to our sensibilities with that wonderfully black-browed opening C Minor chord and their successors – his playing reminded me of the impact I well remember of hearing my first-ever recording, over fifty years ago, of that music played by Paul Badura-Skoda, and being knocked sideways as a result!

I particularly enjoyed the player’s going right back to the music’s Grave opening with the exposition repeat, rather than merely reiterating the allegro, which I’d previously heard only New Zealand pianist Stephen de Pledge do in concert. Something else I thought particularly striking in Várjon’s performance was his “playing” of the silences during the Grave sequences a matter, I felt, of giving the pauses their full resonance, so that each new note was allowed to coalesce in the wake of the previous one. In all, the first movement was splendidly done.

I’m sure that even Frederic Chopin, who had little time for Beethoven’s music, would have been charmed by Várjon’s playing of the beautiful, nocturne-like Adagio cantabile which followed – the player’s touch, while having a finely-sculptured quality still evidenced plenty of variety and pliability, producing a living, breathing sense of line. Then, from the second subject’s wistfulness rose a passionately-wrought archway through which we were heart-stoppingly taken, and then returned to the Adagio, our trajectories a tad enlivened, but reclaiming a dream-like “dying fall’ at the end.

From strength and then sensibility, the music turned to whimsy and caprice in the final movement, with playfulness aplenty between the hands, punctuated by the occasional sforzando – a wonderful “splurge-like” clash of notes at the top of one upward run, all adding to the excitement! Towards the end Várjon’s playing brought the music’s energies almost to boiling-point, with everything suddenly tumbling over and downwards; but no bones were broken, as a quick inspection revealed before a final chortle brought the rumbustion to an end! – all thoroughly engaging and enjoyable!

Franz Liszt set three Sonnets by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch  (Nos. 47, 104 and 123), firstly for voice and piano, and then as solo piano versions in the second suite of his Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – his Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy). More recent research into the poet’s life and output has renumbered those sonnets differently to that of Liszt’s original titles, with the latter’s “Petrarch Sonnett No.104 – Pace non trovo – appearing as No.134 in some editions that include other “ballades, songs and snatches” by the poet. Whatever the case, Liszt’s treatment of this Sonnet is a masterpiece, whether in, as here, solo piano form, or in other versions for voice and piano.

Whether the impulses were grand and tumultuous or tender and thoughtful, Várjon’s playing of this work vividly encapsulated the composer’s richly varied set of responses to the poet’s heartfelt words, from the impassioned opening – “I find no peace, but for war am not inclined…” -through the gamut of emotion – “Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast….” – to the ending’s eloquent resignation – “…to this state I am come, my lady, because of you….”, the pianist “placing” those exquisite high notes near the end as the work’s true climax, and the remainder being as mere echoings. After hearing this I should have liked to have had him play the whole of the Italian  Deuxième année Book……..

A treat of a different order, however, was in store, with the first of Bartok’s Op.8a Roumanian Dances for solo piano, written (1910) at around the time he was extensively exploring Eastern Europe compiling collections of folk music. This rhapsodic music used native rhythms (a “galumphing’ opening) and themes (bagpipe-like snippets of melody) to launch and establish the piece, with Várjon bringing beautifully into being a central, grandly resonating lyrical section with a wistful epilogue. The dance’s opening returned, this time accelerating to a wilder, more percussive climax with plenty of foot-stamping before a grand peroration presented the main theme once again  – the music then “plays” with the melodic snippets as if someone might be swatting at a buzzing fly which cheekily evades its fate and has the last word! Hugely entertaining!

The Mahler Symphony was of an entirely different order, its many moods and evocations giving tongue to the composer’s famous statement regarding the nature of a symphony – “It is like the world!” he once declared to fellow-composer Jean Sibelius – “It must contain everything!”. Had one little or no idea of the programme of this work one still had sufficient variety of impulse, colour and texture to readily imagine a narrative or grand design over the work’s four movements, themselves further dissected into contrasting sequences which added unceasing interest to the discourse. Várjon and his duo-partner-wife Izabella Simon took us right inside the music’s fantastical world from the very beginning, the opening movement a kind of evocation of nature’s awakening, and (by use of themes used in a previous song-cycle, “Songs of A Wayfarer”) a traveller’s experience of passing through the natural world’s manifold beauties and energetic irruptions, to a joyful and vigorous climax.

Each of the three remaining movements had a very specific character – the second movement’s country-dance atmosphere (known as a “Ländler”) was vigorously portrayed, and further contrasted by a more lyrical Trio, most evocatively realised by the duo pair, while the spookily atmospheric third movement Funeral March (with its minor-key use of the famous “Frere Jacques” theme) here gave me the utmost pleasure, Izabella Simon as the “primo” player beautifully and piquantly bringing out the melodies, their  essences underpinned by her partner’s “secondo” portrayal of the somewhat macabre funeral cortege rhythms. I particularly enjoyed the pair’s bringing out of the bitter-sweetness in this movement’s Trio, with its quotation of a song from Lieder Eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”).

Perhaps the most challenging of the work’s movements was the Finale, which the programme-note-writer called “the longest and most dramatic”.  Mahler was to replicate the “bolt of lightning” opening of this movement in his Second Symphony’s finale as well, but in none of the other symphonies do the finales begin so cataclysmically. Here, Simon and Várjon threw themselves almost bodily into the fray, and wrestled their way to a mid-movement climax of sorts, only to have the music suddenly lose its nerve and change key, modulating upwards and into a kind of “no-person’s land!” Undaunted, the pair bent their backs to the struggle once again (the effort was excitingly palpable for all of us, throughout!) and flung the fanfare figures upwards and outwards once again – and were rewarded when the music’s goal of a triumphal D major was sighted, prepared, driven towards – and sustained! As I wrote at the outset of this review, the achievement was greeted with all due acclaim, the kind of thing which sustains a memory for a long while to come. Bravo, indeed!












Handel’s “Messiah” – stimulation and distinction for 2023 in Wellington from the Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington

Photo credit "Latitude Creative"

Photo credit “Latitude Creative”

Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington present:
Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Margaret Medlyn ONZM (alto), Frederick Jones (tenor), Paul Whelan (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Orchestra Wellington (Amalia Hall, concertmaster)
Jonathan Berkahn (continuo)
Brent Stewart (conductor)

MIchael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023

At the Interval, during the Orpheus Choir’s recent “Messiah” performance at the Michael Fowler Centre, I took stock – all very thought-provoking so far, the concert having begun promisingly by conductor Brent Stewart with a soberly-delivered but well-rounded orchestral Overture, grave, but not too solemn, and jaunty without being too punchily “born-again-authentic”, and the orchestra proceeding to confidently work its way through the chameleon-like contrasts of  character required to support each of the oratorio’s items.

We heard several distinctive soloists’ turns that conveyed the spirit and essence of the notes and texts, balancing the requirements of the score with the theatricality of the subject-matter, and in almost every case rising splendidly to the challenges suggested by the texts, braving a couple of low-octane moments with enough resolve to hold words and music together. And there were the choruses which explored their own heights and depths of situation and emotion, the voices seeming to me to “sing themselves in” more surely as the sequences proceeded, as did the players with their instruments in like manner.

Highlights of the first half included tenor Frederick Jones’s persuasively prophetic declamation in his opening recitative “Comfort Ye”, pleasingly emphasised by his continuo-only accompaniment for “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”, with only the long runs in “Ev’ry Valley” which involved the word “exalted” and “plain” seeming to affect his powers somewhat. Bass Paul Whelan seemed to have limitless reserves of strength, pinning back our ears with his “Thus Saith the Lord” and his near seismic runs on the word “shake” later in the recitative. I thought his response at “For Behold” curiously neutral at first, eschewing a growing intensity of tone leading up to the words “light” and “glory”, but admittedly making amends in the aria that followed with his sonorous utterance of the words “have seen a great light”.

Margaret Medlyn in the mezzo part made the most of her word-pointing with “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”, and then in the aria “O Thou that tellest” coped with a cracking pace, investing the words “Arise” and “Shine” with suitable radiance as an incentive for the chorus to follow with their even more vigorous incitements of “Arise!” and “Behold!”. And with her colleague, Madeleine Pierard, Medlyn contrived to charm us with the lullabic tones of “He shall feed his flock”, preparing the way for the soprano’s transcending upward-lifting entry with the same melody – always a beautiful moment! Early, the justly famous “Pastoral Symphony” had paved the beguiling way for the soprano, Pierard’s voice as angelic as I previously remembered in this music,  making her words tell in announcing the heavenly hosts’ presence, the chorus’s celestial “Glory to God in the Highest” underpinned by some superb trumpet playing!

Here, the chorus work was enchanting – earlier I’d thought that Brent Stewart’s tempi for his forces were too rushed to allow “And the Glory of the Lord” its proper “glory”, and “And He shall purify” its captivating deliciousness in the lines’ effervescent intersecting, like strands of impulse in a bubbling brook! What I admit then bewitched my ear was the first half’s concluding item, the chorus “His yoke is easy”, with Stewart’s tempo quick enough to challenge his voices, but spacious enough to allow the phrases to both bloom and catchily syncopate on the word “easy”.  Handel had devised a kind of fugue which plays beautifully with the phrase, before mercilessly subjecting the word “light” to a state of sudden ambivalence – is it a reference to Christ’s teachings and their liberation for all peoples from the laws and strictures of the Pharisees? Or is it an ironic comment upon Jesus’s intention to suffer and die for our sins so that we may be redeemed? The performance illustrated the salient characteristics of the setting in all its contradictory splendour.

I should say at this point that the sum total of what I had heard thus far was disposing me towards looking forward to the second half! – and my expectations were set alight by the opening chorus of the Second Part of the work, “Behold the Lamb of God” the effect of which was hypnotic and compelling to a degree I hadn’t previously registered. Then it suddenly struck me that all the chorus members had closed their scores, and were obviously singing from memory! – it was such a focused “moment” of both sight and sound, and was somehow signalling to us that what we were about to hear was worthy of every skerrick of our attention from this moment on.

And so it proved – Margaret Medlyn again seemed to “own” the words in “He was despised” – no morbidity or sentimentality, here, but somehow pure emotion, expressed by a storyteller in real human terms for another human being – the added force of her articulation of the words “despised” and “rejected” (the latter here almost “sprechgesang”) was a moment of unique feeling, powerful in its conveyed spontaneity.

Then came another of the work’s great sequential sections, one which for me lifted conductor Brent Stewart and his voices “up on high” for a few exalted moments – the chorus “Surely He hath borne our griefs” expressed with such shock and anger as to its significance, with the orchestral support here almost percussive in its attack by way of reinforcing the notes’ jagged angularity – incredible emotion! From this “full frontal” assault sprang the similarly austere “And With His Stripes” whose rigour and severity seemed to bind the music’s course with strong, impenetrable bonds, before Handel suddenly disarmed the exactitude of such sounds at a stroke, with “All We like sheep”, the voices suddenly freed from constraint and revelling in their dynamic contrasts and energies. Handel again here makes inspired and mercurial use of the words’ seeming caprice as a ploy to suddenly plunging our short-lived exuberances into a state of shame and sadness, with the words “…has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, a moment almost stupefying in its effect….

The music’s inexorable ebb-and-flow strength continued with Frederick Jones’s stentorian “All they who have seen him” provoking a derisive “He trusted in God” response from the choir, one then eloquently lamented with Jones’s “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”, and the accompanying “Behold and see”, with Christ’s sufferings and punishment on humankind’s behalf further emphasised by the singer in a remarkable and well-sustained sequence. And a slight rhythmic stumble along the way didn’t deter Jones in his defiant “Thou shalt break them”, the power of God sustaining the music’s and the singer’s determination.

Margaret Medlyn’s “How Beautiful are the Feet” made an appropriately meditative contrast to the travails of Christ’s trials and sufferings, with its intimately–focused solo string accompaniments, a moment of meditation then swept away by the whole orchestra’s whirlwind introduction to Paul Whelan’s rousing “Why Do the Nations”, and with the choir goaded into a kind of similar frenzy in its frantic “Let us break their bonds asunder”, the flailing lines spectacularly dovetailed! The redemption to all of this came surely and squarely with the deservedly beloved “Halleluiah” chorus – of course, we all leapt to our feet (isn’t it, by this time, in our DNA to do so?)! Terrific stuff from all concerned, voices and instruments, and especially the brass and timpani – though a friend of mine afterwards complained that conductor Brent Stewart seemed to “play” with the dynamics too much instead of really “letting ‘er rip!”. You simply can’t please some people, no matter what!

It was left to Madeleine Pierard’s supremely confident and appropriately celestially-bound “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, Paul Whelan’s authoritative “The trumpet shall sound” (supported to the hilt by his trumpeter!), and the Orpheus Choir’s by this time almost transcendental range of articulations, tones and dynamics in taking us through the well-wrought certainties of both “Since by man came death” and “Worthy is the Lamb”, to reach the work’s final “Amen” chorus. I loved the latter’s  “building blocks” aspect, rising inexorably from the opening phrase with the voices, and being drawn skywards by the orchestral instruments before the clouds rolled back to reveal its completed grandeur. Great honour and praise are due to conductor/choir director Brent Stewart for his work in enabling and then taking us through such an inspired and far-reaching journey.

Cantoris Choir resonant in Rutter and determined in Durufle….

Cantoris Choir presents:

Cantoris Choir,
conducted by Thomas Nikora
with Jonathan Berkhan (organ)
and Samuel Berkhan (‘cello)

St,Peter’s-on-Willis Church, Wellington
Saturday, 9th September 2023

Two markedly different but satisfyingly complementary works were presented at St.Peter’s-on-Willis on Saturday night by Cantoris Choir, conducted by Thomas Nikora. The concert had been plagued with difficulties, due to various people’s unexpected incapacitation for various reasons, but the show went on in the time-honoured manner, to everybody’s great credit under the circumstances!

The first half consisted of John Rutter’s “Gloria”, which I had seen and heard  Cantoris perform before – in April of 2019, to be exact – a concert I remember had the choir in confident and vigorous form on that occasion. I’m presuming that tonight’s concert was affected by the difficulties alluded to above, though Thomas Nikora was able to steer his voices safely and sonorously through all but the most angular and demanding moments. Rutter’s three part work emphasised the joyousness of the text at the outset, Joinathan Berkahn’s organ-playing at the beginning setting the scene with a couple of majestic irruptions of sound and adding resonance to the choir’s opening unison “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”, I liked the composer’s differentiation between celestial splendour at the outset and the “more suitably earthbound” contrast with the humbler “et terra pax” , and also the jazzier return to the opening, with an emphasis upon the word “Deo” at the end.

Straight away the piping organ tones at the beginning of the next part reminded me of Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey, in Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”. The voices rose with the words “Domine Deus Rex Caelestis” while the organ tripped merrily on, (in places the work almost had an “organ sonata with vocal obbligato” kind of effect!) before the vocal lines descended nicely with hushed tones at “Qui tollis peccata mundi”, including a “splinter group” of voices who had retreated to give an evocative  “cry from the wilderness” impression. Together with the words “Qui sedes ad Dextram Patris ”, the sweetly-intoned “Miserere nobis” hauntingly echoed to the end.

The vigorous opening of the finale, underpinned by the organ, featured the “Quoniam” with its repeated “tu solus” acclamations of “You alone” driving the music on, the phrase tossed about the choir with surety in preparation for the build-up to the “Cum Sanctu Spiritus” and leading on to the fugue-like Amens”, the dancing rhythms propelling everything forwards, conductor and singers finding more radiance as the music proceeded, if also showing the stain of Rutter’s insistent demands in places. However,  over the final pages of the work and concluding with the reprise of the “Gloria”. the voices acquitted themselves splendidly.

IN this world of two distinct halves the Durufle Requiem certainly occupied the darker side of the sphere as per the programme’s title, though the work itself certainly doesn’t take us to the same degree of Dante-esque terror via  theatrical and cataclysmic “Dies Irae” sequences, as did both Berlioz and Verdi in their respective “Requiems” – like the Durufle work’s “twin”, which is the Faure Requiem, the scenario presents the idea of faith as the “ultimate answer to the mystery of life after death” with the concluding “In Paradisum”, a sequence not used by either Berlioz or Verdi. Durufle’s work also differs from Faure’s in that the composer sought to replicate the style of Gregorian chant, rather than invent his own themes, as Faure did. Thus we are conscious all through Durufle’s work of the influence of the ancient chants, giving this Requiem a unique kind of character, at once a timeless and a universal sense of origin.

A great opening organ chord! – and straight away the Cantoris voices drew us into a world that at first seemed more like plainchant than in Faure’s eponymous work, with the men’s voices steadily intoning the “Requiem aeternam” – a lovely effect was the women’s voices floating over the top, the voices coming together beautifully for “et lux perpetua”.   The “Kyrie”, which followed immediately, sounded like plainchant which I myself could remember singing long ago at Mass! Durufle’s contrapuntal lines  merged here into radiant outpourings over both Kyries and Christes. The “Domine Jesu Christe had a sombre beginning on the organ, the women beginning the “Domine Jesu Christe” chant-like tones before the choir burst out vehemently with “Libera eas de ore leonis” (Deliver them from the mouth of the Lion), then continuing with even more stress-wrought pronouncements – “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus, ne cadat in obscurum” – (Lest Tartarus swallow them up and they fall into darkness” ) – and the organ going almost beserk with agitation as well! (those of us not hugely familiar with the words really needed the text at hand to follow what was being  expressed specifically, though one of course naturally concluded from  encountering other requiems that the scenarios being described were anything but sweetness and light!)….the women’s voices which then  invoked St.Michael’s guidance did restore some order! – and their “Quam olim Abrahae” further renewed a sense of faith and hope “….into the holy light which once you promised to Abraham and his seed….”

The male soloist who then came forward did well with his “Hostias et preces tibi, Domine” (We offer to you, Lord), the organ plumbing the expressive depths in support – and several women members of  the choir suddenly retreated further into the sanctuary and intoned from the distance their lines once again, before returning – an atmospheric touch!

The “Sanctus” so beautifully swirled into one’s hearing by the women’s voices, like cascading water swirling deliciously all about, with lovely organ accompaniments! When it came to the Hosannas the men did so well, their voices forthright and joyous, suitably inspiring the remaining voices to add their cries to the acclamations. the Benedictus adding to the swirling motions, albeit very briefly. With the  following “Pie Jesu” a solo ‘cello (played by Samuel Berkhan) accompanied a soprano voice, a lovely melody shared between the two – very low for the singer at first, but the voice sounded freer and happier in its subsequent “soaring” mode.

A purposeful beginning by the organ launched the “Agnus Dei”, with the women’s and then the men’s voices taking their turns, then dovetailing the sonorous lines as the piece proceeded, creating  gorgeous harmonisings as the “Dona Eis Requiems” were intoned, along with a breathtakingly lovely “Requiem sempiternam”.  Falling organ note-cluster-harmonies then introduced the “Lux Aeterna”,  again reminiscent of Gregorian chant, before intoning haunting single-note lines, interspersed with the organ’s improvisatory-like recitatives – the single note chantings suggested a possible air of finality and impending peace, one however roughly broken into by the organ’s summonsing of the  forbidding-sounding  “LIbera me”.

The men pushed the lines along what seemed a torturous way, assisted by the women’s voices; and the solo baritone re=entered, a little unsteady at first then finding his voice, with the most fearful of the work’s texts given tongue at this point, the men confronting the “Dies Illa/Dies Irae” warnings throughout the “no-souls’ land of the music at this point,.Finally,  the choir grasped onto their reprise of the “Libera Me” with appropriate conviction and beseechment.

It was given the organ to wreathe from the uneasy calm the strains of “In Paradisum”,  the voices tentative at first, and then with “Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat”  (There may the chorus of angels receive thee) the music seemed to find its path amid the suspended chaos, and beckon all to follow.

Those of us who might have expected to encounter a kind of dutiful reminiscence of Gabriel Faure’s earlier work found ourselves at the conclusion of Durufle’s work forced to consider the proper implications of what we had just experienced – a masterpiece in its own right, forged and performed with some difficulty but plenty of singular and enduring purpose from all concerned……..

Worlds of difference and sympathy – rapturous Beethoven and Saint-Saens from the Wellington City Orchestra

Wellington City Orchestra presents

BEETHOVEN – Violin Concerto in D Op.61
SAINT-SAENS – Symphony No. 3 in C Minor “Organ” Op.78

Helene Pohl (violin)
Max Toth (organ)
Wellington City Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

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

Saturday 24th June, 2023

Small wonder that this concert drew what seemed like a full house to St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Saturday afternoon. – not only were the two featured works on the programme sure-fire drawcards, but each presentation had the kind of “ädded value” that made their pairing difficult to resist.

The lately-renamed Wellington City Orchestra’s second 2023 outing was this time with the much-respected Rachel Hyde taking her turn on the podium. First up was Beethoven’s adorable Violin Concerto, with great interest centred around the soloist, none other than Helene Pohl, the leader of the internationally renowned New Zealand String Quartet. Having heard Pohl lead her ensemble with enormous distinction through complete cycles of the composer’s string quartets I was naturally intrigued to hear how she would tackle the very different role of a concerto soloist, albeit in the same composer’s music .

What first grabbed my attention.however, was the sharply-defined focus of the orchestra’s introduction to the work, once the slight uncertaincy of the timpanist’s opening strokes had passed – Rachel Hyde secured finely-wrought dynamic contrasts between tutti and chamber-like passages with solo wind lines imparting great character. It was playing that created great expectancy regarding Pohl’s first, ascending-octaved entry, her tones beautifully “growing” out of the orchestral ambiences that had preceded the solo violin’s arrival.

I loved the “elfin” quality of Pohl’s tone throughout, with its shades of expression whose every utterance seemed to simultaneously evolve from whatever she had previously played and respond to whatever solo or ensembled phrases accompanied hers. Her instrument’s voice had a silvery quality which took on a more burnished- golden aspect in places where Beethoven’s thoughts were at his most profound, then returning to a diaphanous quality when, in places, dancing with similarly delicate orchestral solos. For their part, Hyde and her players both supported the soloist and took the lead when necessary, splendidly initiating and controlling the tensions leading up to the tutti outbursts leading to the movement’s solo cadenza.

Pohl’s sounding of this was like a prayer, chordal-like ascendings, followed by playful duettings of themes, and heroic passages in thirds, before her summonsing of the orchestra once more, true greatness in her playing of the melody’s valediction, and of the single note which sang out so purely at the top of the phrase’s final contouring – exquisite!

Hyde got her string players to sound the slow movement’s first trance-like phrases with wonderful “innigkeit”, horns, and then clarinets confidently taking over from the strings and preparing the way for the soloist’s birdsong-like rhapsodisings. Even more rapt was the movement’s central section, Pohl’s playing resembling a kind of hymn to existence, even more so when orchestral pizzicati provided an enchanting backdrop for the solo violin’s spell-weavings.

An orchestral call to arms, and a short, cadenza-like flourish from the soloist brought in the work’s finale, the orchestra taking a while to settle into the soloist’s rhythm, possibly the result of the players having, like the rest of us, “blissed out” during the heavenly Larghetto! Pohl took it all in her stride, alternating a characterfully rustic treatment of the main theme with more quixotic-like poise when repeating the same an octave higher. Then, in the more pensive minor-key second subject, the line was delivered with great emotion, ably supported by the bassoon – and, when the opening returned Hyde seemed to have reawakened her players so that they were with their soloist all the way, building those horn and wind fanfares into a mighty cadenza-welcoming shout! This was one to which Pohl responded with a cadenza I wasn’t as familiar with as I could have been, but which, using material from the finale itself, built quickly and spectacularly to the point where the orchestral cellos and basses were INVITED to make a “what do we think?” comment on the proceedings! – duly satisfied, soloist and orchestra here exchanged, syncopated, inverted and brought things to a by-then ecstatic close!

During the interval that followed, I gleaned. from all sides of where I was sitting. that things had been extremely pleasing thus far, the performance having created a suitable buzz in the minds of my neighbours, young and old. It seemed to augur well for what was to follow next, the orchestra having meanwhile “growed” some extra personnel for the second-half performance of Camille Saint-Saens’s well-known “Organ” Symphony, an undertaking obviously sparked by the not-too-distant (April 2021) refurbishment of the St.Andrew’s church organ.

I was a bit surprised that the organist for this occasion, Max Toth, was not given a special mention in the printed programme – though to be fair Saint-Saens’ work is not a “concerto” with a star soloist, but a “symphony”, and with works described as such individual instrumentalists’ names are normally mentioned only in orchestral listings of players. And the organist’s name was certainly there, even if the noise he conjured up from his splendid instrument was out of all proportion to his modest rank-and-file listing – a minor matter, and certainly in the light of the “special ovation” he was accorded at the piece’s end, at the prompting of Rachel Hyde herself…

As to the piece we were about to hear, Saint-Saens once remarked of himself that, as a composer he produced music as an apple tree produced apples, though he obviously meant he had great facility, and not that he considered his work facile and repetitive. The “Organ” Symphony was something of a biological “sport” for its time – the only reference I have found to a previous use of the organ in an orchestral symphony (1877) is by the nearly-forgotten Austrian composer Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), though the fame of Saint-Saens’1886 work spawned a number of imitators, most of them French!

Right at the beginning, Hyde and her players opened up the work’s spaces, the strings’ first floating chords answered first by the oboe and then the flutes, their upward phrases drifting into what seemed like a void, but sparking a response from pizzicato strings and winds which suddenly and excitedly awoke the rest of the strings whose tumbling, chattering phrases spread through the textures galvanising the entire orchestra.

Hyde’s direction imparted just enough urgent impetus for the movement to maintain its course and for the players to keep the syncopated rhythms together, which they did most impressively throughout. And I enjoyed the occasional bedecking of the textures with detailed impulse, such as the tuba making its presence “tell” for a moment of glory, along with the brass and timpani, in underlining the importance to the work of the composer’s use of the “Dies Irae” variant by capping the climax of the excitement with great elan.

The slow movement was beautifully “prepared” for by pizzicato strings and brass, the organ establishing the requisite mood for the strings to fill the spaces with gorgeous tones, then allowing the wind and brass the chance to sing the same melody, the organ judiciously providing the transitions between the different orchestral forces’ sequences. Apart from some slight imprecision between the string “voices” in the duet-like-like sequences, the players delighted us with the beauty and focus of their playing of the movement’s gorgeous outpourings. At first I thought the organ pedal during the lyrical theme’s last great reprise not robust enough, but its deliciously tummy-wobbling aspect began to tell as the music soared to its conclusion – moments of glorious, ultra-Romanticism, capped off by the authentic-sounding reediness of the organ’s registrations at the end.

In terms of commitment from the players and cool-headed control from the conductor, the symphony’s Scherzo was for me a highlight of the performance (also bringing back vivid memories of my days as a percussionist, and our orchestra in Palmerston North tackling this work!). Strong, vibrant attack at the opening was capped off by on-the-spot timpani, and vibrant playing from the winds – Hyde kept the tempo steady, allowing her players room to shape and “point” the rhythms. As for the Trio, it was very properly a riot of impulse every which way, with the piano’s tumbling figurations adding to the excitement. The players did so well with these vertiginous rhythms and syncopations – while not every detail was perfect, the few spills simply added to the excitement and dare-devilry of the whole.

Both the Scherzo and the opening of the Trio were repeated, the latter dominated by the brass, with the winds capering all about underneath, and the strings steadying the euphoria with some meltingly beautiful playing, joined by the winds and brass, with the “Dies Irae” ominously sounded by the basses below – after all of this one could easily forgive the not-quite-together wind chord which prefaced the finale!

The voices awaiting within those organ pipes to sound their utmost simply burst forth magnificently as organist Max Toth activated the instrument! How emotional it all seemed, with the C major melody (the much-lauded “Babe” tune as garnered for use in the eponymous movie!) firstly stealing in via the strings and piano duettists underpinned by the deep organ pedal notes, then allowed its full magnificence with organ and orchestra each given its head, cymbal crashes, bass drum thwacks, brasses and all replying to the organ’s splendour! The strings made a sterling job of their fugal passage which followed, taken up vociferously by the brasses and then quelled by the lines being allowed to soar and “float” by the strings and winds, as a respite from the energies and excitements already unleashed and still to come. Enough to say that the performance of the rest fully expressed the “cri de coeur” of the composer: – “I gave everything to it I was able to give! – what I have here accomplished I will never achieve again….”

It seemed fitting that, right at the end Rachel Hyde gave the last voice to the organ, allowing the instrument to hold the final chord for a few moments after the orchestra had ceased playing (a gesture I’d not previously heard made in this work, but which certainly had its effect – not unlike the organ chord which continues sounding at the end of the opening (!) of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra”). But the glory was as much the Wellington City Orchestra players’ and conductor’s as the organ’s, and of course the music’s. Both composers and their respective works were on this occasion certainly done proud.