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

Part II of Middle C’s coverage of the Festival

From Monday 4 Feb to Tuesday 5, evening

Mozart on the organ, by Douglas Mews

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 10 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wilma and Friends

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

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 2 pm

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

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

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

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

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

And this performance met those expectations very well.


Bach by Candlelight

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

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

Nelson Cathedral

Monday 4 February, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nikki Chooi – violin

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February 2 pm

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

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

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

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

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


Slavic Rhapsody

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson: the first days

Grand Opening Concert

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts (Nelson School of Music)

Friday 1 February 2019, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday: Meeting the artists and discussing the music

The Jerusalem Quartet, talking with Gillian Ansell

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 10 am and 2 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday evening: Schubert, Dorati, Schumann and Brahms

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday: Várjon in Beethoven and Bartók

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

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Sunday 3 February, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nelson Chamber Music festival again New Zealand’s biennial musical highlight

The Adam International Chamber Music Festival (Thursday 2 to Saturday 11 February 2017)

Theatre Royal, Nelson and Nelson Cathedral

These reviews cover concerts from Tuesday 7 to Friday 10 February 2017

My visit this year to the Nelson Chamber Music Festival was shorter than in previous years, arriving late afternoon on the Tuesday and departing midday Saturday.

The highlights from abroad were the presence of Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon, the Australian tenor, Andrew Goodwin (singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe), the Goldner Quartet and cellist Matthew Barley.

The essence of the festival rests with the New Zealand String Quartet, which founded and sustained the festival from its beginning in 1992: for many years, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. The quartet whose membership remained fixed for over 20 years, saw the retirement last year of second violinist, Doug Beilman and his replacement by Australian violinist Monique Lapins, who at this festival enjoyed solo exposure, notably in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

Frequent visitors over the years have been the New Zealand Piano Trio (NZTrio) which played as a group and also played individually with a variety of other players. And the Goldner Quartet from Australia which has visited a couple of times in the past.

An old friend, clarinettist James Campbell, returned, to join in music by Brahms, Gao Ping, Schumann, Jean Françaix…    as well as several New Zealand and other contemporary pieces. Plus marimba player Ian Rosenbaum.

A central element of this festival was ‘The Cello’, involving the performance of all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, from five different cellists, who were joined by eight others for the cello jamboree in two concerts on Friday the 10th.

Waitangi Day has always fallen within the festival and has offered an opportunity to feature New Zealand works. This time Gillian Whitehead was present for the New Zealand premiere of her new one-voice opera Iris Dreaming.

Naturally, I was there for only some of these, from the Tuesday evening.

My first concert on Tuesday 7 February, 7:30 pm, was entitled ‘Cadenzas’. It began with the third Beethoven cello sonata (Op 69), this one from Matthew Barley accompanied by Dénes Varjon. (the Op 5 sonatas had already been played). I have never felt that the cello sonatas were among Beethoven’s real masterpieces, but Barley gave this one a sort of raw individuality that, while not speaking in unmistakably Beethovenish tones, was a study in vivid contrasts between movements and within movements, lyrical or tough-minded, rhapsodic or strictly formulated.

Pre-eminent Canadian clarinettist James Campbell has been at Nelson, perhaps twice before, and is clearly a good friend to both the New Zealand String Quartet and the festival itself. While I truly lamented missing his playing in the Brahms clarinet quintet in the final Gala performance, it was a pleasure to hear him with marimba player Ian Rosenbaum in Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s Cadenza II.

Louie is of mixed Chinese-Canadian descent and this improvisatory piece drew on those contrasting influences. Rosenbaum’s virtuosity may visually have somewhat outshone the less flamboyant character of a clarinet player, and the mingling of sounds did not especially persuade me of their natural affinity, but the vitality and exotic character of the music provided an excellent punctuation mark between two pillars at either end of the 19th century.

Brahms first piano trio, essentially a youthful piece (aged 20), is a favourite of most chamber music fans, such as me. And its performance by Varjon with New Zealand String Quartet’s Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten was a huge success, rich and romantic, refined and compelling.

Wednesday the 8th began with a meet-the-artists with the Goldner Quartet in the morning – most entertaining and interesting according to those who attended.

The 2pm, hour-long Theatre Royal concert, entitled Fire in the Belly, focused on the last piece, of that name by Jack Body commissioned by the New Zealand Trio in 2008 and played by the trio here. It might be something of departure from much of Body’s music that shows the influence of the indigenous music from many parts of the world. It was perhaps a reassurance for those who might wonder whether he also succeeded in writing music in a fairly traditional form, for traditional western instruments, in an idiom that was original yet accessible; it held my attention firmly, and is worthy of its place in the piano trio literature.

The concert began however with the fourth of Beethoven’s cello sonatas (Op 102 No 1) which Rolf Gjelsten played beautifully; though in his introduction he spoke, uncharacteristically, a bit too long. His pianist was Dénes Varjon who’d accompanied the Op 69 sonata on Tuesday and the accord was again heart-warming.

It was followed by Kakakurenai, by Japanese composer Andy Akiho, for marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, originally for ‘prepared steel pan’, having an effect rather like Caribbean steel drums; that quality could be heard through the two keyed percussion instruments. It started interestingly but became repetitive in its rhythmic and melodic ideas, though it came comfortably to an end at the right time.

Then a piece for viola and piano, Märchenbilder (Fairytale pictures), Op 113, by Schumann; one of his last works. Though played by affectionately and persuasively by Gillian Ansell and Dénes Varjon, it rather lacked much energy and its melodic interest was routine in comparison with the enchanting inspirations of his earlier piano music and Lieder.

On Wednesday evening at 7.30pm came one of the festival’s centre-pieces – ‘Bach by Candlelight’, inevitably, in the Cathedral, with the evening sun setting through the western stained glass. The pattern has been established over the years: a mixture of arias from cantatas and some instrumental works. As usual it involved most of the string players at the festival, from the NZTrio, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Goldner Quartet and the young Nelson ‘Troubadours’, as well as Matthew Barley, NZSO bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga, Ian Rosenbaum, Douglas Mews – harpsichord and organ, and Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin.

The two orchestral works this time were the lovely violin concerto in A minor, solo by the New Zealand String Quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins. At the end, Brandenburg Concerto No 6 which is unusual as it uses no violins: just violas and a cello and a bass, producing a gorgeous warm sound that I really love. So that was a delight.

The four arias were sung by Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin, a smooth, beautifully nuanced voice, strong and full of character. In some previous years I have found some cantata excerpts s a bit tedious, but these four, as sung by him, were just wonderful, simply creating music that may have been religious in intent but were typically rich in musical substance, easily sustaining the rapt attention of the capacity audience in the cathedral.

The one oddball element in the concert was Bach’s fifth cello suite, C minor, arranged for marimba. Ian Rosenbaum performed it from memory, with astonishing energy and musicality, but the sound, for me, was simply not right. It performance on a stringed instrument is so embedded in my head that playing the notes on a percussion instrument, even one capable, as is the marimba, of very subtle dynamic variety, was too hard to accommodate. Furthermore, the ability to strike four keys at once created more harmonic opportunities and that too altered its character, to the point where I would have wondered, hearing it for the first time, who the composer might have been.

In the 2pm Thursday concert in the Cathedral Matthew Barley began with Bach’s first cello suite. His playing revealed a rhythmic freedom, with the tempo in the Prelude far from the strict, steady rhythms that are sometimes imposed on Bach’s music. The Allemande was painted with a soft brush while in the Courante the bow skipped lightly, never biting into the strings. But it was the Sarabande where the greatest rhythmic freedom appeared, with a surprising silence before the final note. The whole performance was infused with an appealing, organic sense that prepared the ground for the following very recent compositions.

Tavener’s Threnos for solo cello is somehow a seminal late 20th century work that uses the simplest material with utter sincerity. There are three phases that move from the deepest spiritual level through lighter realms in higher registers before returning to the first phase; beautifully played as it was, I wondered whether Barley had quite discovered its essential profundity.

Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor explored another spiritual region; its waltz character is unimportant but its roots half way between the classical and folk music realms as well as its beautiful unpretentiousness have made it famous. Barley’s lovely playing of its strange, haunting quality stilled the audience.

Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima’s name might not be familiar to classical audiences (though one is shamed to see the long list of compositions in his Wikipedia listing). He too spans the fields of popular and classical music and his Lamentatio is easily associated with the two earlier pieces on this programme. The ‘lamentation’ was given extra impact through the cellist’s vocalisations at certain points, and while it began in the spirit that its title suggested, it soon became a frenetic double-stopping farrago, eventually ending with racing, descending staccato arpeggios, spiced by hard spiccato bowing below the bridge.

Improvisation was a major element in Barley’s performance of the last three works. However, there were no formal markers indicating where the composed music ended and improvisation began, and it was rather a matter of guesswork for me, since I had not heard either the O’Connor or the Sollima before. Sometimes I felt a change of tone and direction; sometimes the improvisatory music seemed completely fused with what the composer had written.

The concert was both an illuminating demonstration of the art of improvisation, and a fascinating awakening to some music that proved very much worth knowing and which I have enjoyed hearing again on YouTube clips since getting home.

(As a quite irrelevant aside, after looking on the Internet after getting home, I found one of Sollima’s performance colleagues has been poet and musician Petti Smith; both have been associated with Yo-Yo-Ma’s Silk Road Project – and both O’Connor and Sollima have been associated with it. At Nelson’s interesting new boutique bookshop Volume (on Church Street) I picked up Smith’s recent autobiographical M Train).

The concert on Thursday evening, 9 February, in the Theatre Royal was one of the true high points for me: both Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Brahms’s Piano quintet, Op 34 are right at the top of my musical loves.

But the concert, entitled ‘Love Triangle’, naturally included Clara Schumann: Helene Pohl and Dénes Farjon played her Three Romance for violin and piano, Op 22. Dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim, it consisted of three contrasted pieces that showed real compositional talent, if not truly memorable music such as her husband or Brahms created. The first, Andante molto, was a dreamy, meandering melody, and a more vigorous middle section formed by wide-spaced intervals.  that was carefully constructed and agreeable; followed by an Allegretto built around a pensive melody, with a more lively middle section. I wrote during the performance: ‘Charming little morceaux’, or I might have said ‘Bagatelles’.

I can’t resist quoting a comment in a Wikipedia reference: “Joachim continued to play the pieces on his own tours. He reported, in a letter to Clara, from the court in Hanover that the king was in ‘ecstasy’ over the Romances and could ‘hardly wait’ to enjoy such ‘marvellous, heavenly pleasure again.’ They are lovely, private pieces, conceived in one of music history’s richest households.” (Tim Summers, violinist).

Dichterliebe is a song cycle that is commonly rated alongside Schubert’s two great cycles. We’d heard Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin in the four arias from Bach cantatas on Wednesday evening and while not detracting from the rare enjoyment of those, his singing of Schumann might have been a more significant endorsement of his musical scholarship and vocal sensibility. Apart from the singing, the piano parts are even more intrinsic to Schumann’s songs than to Schubert’s. And the spirit of many of them is foreshadowed in a longish piano introduction and in a postlude that sometimes offers a commentary that elaborates or lays to rest troubled emotions in the words.

Pianist Isabella Simon, Dénes Varjon’s wife, with whom she often plays duets, has accompanied many singers in Lieder and other art song; she was here for Schumann. Her introduction to the very first song, ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, her personal, idiomatic approach was evident; there was often a studied waywardness, evident from the start, and which matched Goodwin’s discreet and careful handling of Heine’s words (all the poems were drawn from his highly successful collection, Buch der Lieder of 1827). Even for those not understanding the German, there was a distinction between the purely lyrical and the more narrative songs, such as ‘Aus meinen Tränen…’, or ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen’. There were often quite long pauses to allow the impact of an emotion to be ingested by the listener, and the vivid expressive qualities of Schumann’s settings would have told almost as much as fully understanding the words about the poems’ meaning.

One of the great strengths of the cycle is the pithiness of the poems, no word wasted, no emotion tediously prolonged. Schumann plunges straight into some, like ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen’ while in others there’s a long preamble or a long postlude, such as that following ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ or ‘Ein Jungling’, or the extraordinary piano mediation in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. Yet there are songs where the voice starts alone, like ‘Ich hab’ ein Traum geweinet’, with breathless angst, and its ending too, a pained dialogue between voice and piano, with frozen, wide-spaced piano chords, was magically paced. In all these, voice and piano found instinctive rapport.

And the stark contrasts between ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ – passionate, impulsive – and sombre songs like ‘Im Rhein’ (above), created a singular dramatic antithesis.

Naturally one waited in high anticipation for ‘Ich grolle nicht’, but the start shocked me – it was so calm, so restrained, compared with the typical performance where a proud disdain for self-pity is often cried out, declaimed fortissimo; Goodwin maintained a calm tension right up to the last lines when he let go, with full voice with a far greater impact.

It was the one of Schumann’s songs that first impacted me through a music-loving German master at secondary school; that class room, east wing, lower floor, in the morning sun, remains vivid in my memory.

The rare experience of hearing the full cycle from these two fine artists was one of the true highlights of the festival.

Brahms Piano Quintet
As if that wasn’t treasure enough, in the second part of the recital, Dénes Varjon and the New Zealand String Quartet played Brahms’s wonderful piano quintet, Op 34. The magic impacts at once with that strange, exploratory opening which quickly becomes such a gorgeous whole-hearted, melodious movement, though an underlying sobriety is never far below the surface. Again, Varjon showed his gift for embracing at once the musical personalities of his fellow players, as indeed the quartet reciprocated, and there was simply no moment where one could sense disparate musical tastes or sensibilities.

It’s a long work and I have to confess that I’ve sometimes felt that the first movement seems paralysed in its aversion to quitting that stage, but whether that feeling arises is totally dependent on the performance. Here the thought never entered my mind; in fact I dreaded its ending, even after its full quarter hour. All other movements had the same effect, and it had me composing a petition to the NZSQ to make a habit of offering at least one concert a year with Varjon or another comparably collegial pianist to fully explore the piano quintet repertoire (the known masterpieces few, but there’s really a lot worth exploring).

Friday the 10th of February brought my stay to an end. The day of the cello.
The 2pm concert in the Cathedral was ‘Cellissimo’
: a dozen cellists, probably the cream of resident New Zealand cellists, from the three ensembles present, from orchestras and university music schools around the country, along with three of the visitors.
Bach’s Air (‘on the G string’, if you like) from the third orchestral suite, BWV 1068, opened to such opulent beauty that I wondered whether one could any longer justify its performance on the (violin) G string. Would it be hard for any of those present to tolerate any other version? Four cellists played: Megiddo, Barley, Joyce and Edith Salzmann. Presumably it was an arrangement of the ‘arrangement’ (which was transposed from Bach’s D to C major) and not derived directly from the original air.

A different group played a Bach Toccata (Gjelsten, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck, Ken Ichinose and Ashley Brown); not the famous Toccata from the organ toccata and fugue in D minor, but one from an unidentified source by Alan Shulman.

And a different mix of players performed an arrangement of Bach’s Viola da gamba sonata No 1, BWV 1027. This had a particularly authentic feel, as the viola da gamba is a close relation of the modern cello.

Five cellists then played an attractive piece by Dvořák, Silent Woods, originally No 5 of a set of pieces for piano-four-hands (Op 68), which Dvořák arranged for cello and piano. Its singling out, here for five cellos, could be explained by its warm, opulent melody, which offered Eliah Sakakushev and then Julian Smiles (of the Goldner Quartet) the limelight.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances (six of them) also began life as piano pieces and were arranged for orchestra by the composer. Rolf Gjelsten duetted with Inbal Megiddo, alternating lyrical affection, with rhythmic energy, building to barbaric excitement in the last.

And the concert ended with five players. including Matthew Barley, in yet another arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

The Friday evening concert, entitled ‘Cellos by Candlelight’, again in the Cathedral, included varied cellists, ending with all present – I counted thirteen for the last two pieces by Piazzolla and Julius Klengel.

It consisted of mainly short  well-known pieces, but the whole was presented by ever-changing groups of players. Starting with the quintessentially enrapturing Canon by Pachelbel, and then the opening of the William Tell Overture, which I supposes everyone expected to continue for its full 12 minutes or so, but when the opening cello melody ended, that was it.

We heard two of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilleiras: No 1, actually written for an orchestra of cellos, it engaged eight players (if I’m not mistaken: Eliah Sakakushev, Megiddo, Tennant, Du Plessis, Brown, Salzmann, Ichinose, and the cellist from the young Troubadours quartet, Anna-Marie Alloway).

Later Jenny Wollerman sang the beautiful soprano part in Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 with a different cello assemblage, with a singular ethereal quality, the sort-of-wordless vocal line seeming to emerge from far up in the cathedral vault.

There were also two pieces by Pablo Casals, the Song of the Birds and Sardana, which the composer famously conducted with 100 cellists in New York in 1970. These provided a few minutes of variety, music that was probably as unfamiliar to most of the audience as it was to me.

Continuing to honour Casals perhaps, other cellist combinations played more Latin music: the six pieces that comprise Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, which had been arranged from the composer’s original Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs). Variously, they provided solo opportunities for lovely playing by several of the cellists. The surprising thing about these pieces, and indeed the whole cello-dominated concert, was the remarkable variety of tone and dramatic character to be found in this most human of the string instrument family.

And the concert, and for me, the festival itself, ended, with Piazzolla’s seductive Oblivion and Tango, and another rather obscure piece that proved emotionally attractive, a Hymnus for 12 cellos (Op 57) by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and prolific composer, mainly for the cello, whose life spread across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Friday was very much a celebration of the cello, of massed cellos, which only becomes a possibility in a festival setting; it is one of the most important features of a festival, the opportunity to create musical ensembles that can make music that is rarely possible in the ordinary course of concert-giving.

Let’s list those involved in the Klengel piece, just for fun, as it was the total of the cello phalange at the festival: Anna-Marie Alloway, Matthew Barley, Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Ken Ichinose, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Brigid O’Meeghan, Heleen du Plessis, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismark, Edith Salzmann, Julian Smiles, James Tennant.

Stage management was a most particular undertaking which had been noticed at earlier concerts but which reached a climax of complexity and precision at the Friday concerts, since they involved so many cellists. Each clearly had his or her own seating preference and as the players changed places for each piece, manoeuvres with chairs, as well as with music stands equipped for sheet music or tablets, took place with military precision and efficacy. Detailed maps had obviously been drawn up and memorised so that the stage managers could prepare fresh seat dispositions for each piece. In charge was stage manager Brendyn Montgomery and his assistant, Janje Heatherfield.

One must also acknowledge other management of the festival, a body of musical passionnées whose devotion to the cause goes way beyond whatever they are paid.

There’s the festival trust, chaired by Colleen Marshall who introduced many of the concerts and artists; Bob Bickerton, manager, and droll anecdoteur as he shared the introductor-assignment, in addition to being the multi-instrumentalist and entertainer of children.
The fundamental task of artistic planning and management remained the role of two members of the New Zealand String quartet: Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. Success of the festival rests essentially on them, for the music chosen and the musicians who play it.

To end, I should add that one of the little curiosities of this festival was a series of little addenda at the end of each set of programme notes, entitled ‘Conversation Piece’.
An example from this last concert read:
“How can one work of art or music exist successfully in many contexts? Does the emotional affect of a work change depending on its context, or do these works succeed because of the strength of the original content?”
(and note the carefully distinguished use of the word ‘affect’, commonly confused with ‘effect’).


Last three days of the triumphant 2015 Chamber Music Festival in Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part Three

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 February

Thursday 5 February

For the first time, at this festival, two trips out of Nelson were organised, primarily as part of the full festival pass package; on Tuesday it was St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti; today, to Upper Moutere to visit Höglund’s glass studio, the Neudorf Winery and a concert by The Song Company in a beautiful country church.

I decided to remain in Nelson in spite of that meaning foregoing the concert which included songs from the late Middle Ages – the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The song, Crist and Sainte Marie by St Godric, is one of four, ‘the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive’, according to Wikipedia. I will record a personal reference, that Godric spent many years in the famous Lindisfarne Priory (indirectly giving me my name), where the beautiful illuminated eponymous Gospels were probably written in the early eighth century.  There was also a song by the enlightened Castilian King Alfonso X (13th century), English madrigals by Tomkins, Morley, Gibbons and Weelkes; and then a song cycle by Gareth Farr, the Les Murray Song Cycle, and modern madrigals from Australia and Denmark.

In Nelson the concert by the Ying Quartet that I heard on Tuesday at the lake was repeated.

French piano music
Thus there was only the 7:30 pm concert at Old St John’s, entitled Joie de vivre. That was on account of the full programme of French music in which Kathryn Stott was the still point of the turning world.

The earliest piece was five dances by Marin Marais (recall the film, Tous les matins du monde). Phillip Ying took Marais’s viola da gamba part on his viola which might not have altered it materially, but did remove the music from a particularly idiomatic 1700ish sound, partly the effect of a piano in place of a harpsichord or similar instrument of the period. The dances were varied and charming.

A Ravel rarity, which I’d not heard before: Trios beaux oiseaux du paradis, was sung by the Song Company, a cappella.

Kathryn Stott returned to join Rolf Gjelsten’s cello to play first, Fauré’s Après un rêve and then Debussy’s Cello sonata. Rolf read us a translation of the poem by Romain Bussine, a poet and singer who co-founded, with Saint-Säens, an important society in Paris, the Société nationale de musique, for the promotion of French music in the face of, mainly, Germanic influence. It included Franck, Fauré, Massenet and Duparc and several others. The former is very well-known and its performance was enchanting, not at all sentimental (which it rather lends itself to). The Debussy sonata may not be quite as assured a work as the violin sonata but this was a most attractive performance that both distinguished and brought together the distinct lines of the two instruments.

The New Zealand String Quartet joined Stott in César Franck’s Piano Quintet, in a performance whose spirit was very much guided by Stott’s playing, poised and restrained, with space between the phrases, her chords lean and clear. These remarks were true for the first two movements, following the composer’s indications, but in the third, Franck’s marking ‘con fuoco’ was licence for the release of the feelings it was rumoured that Franck had for a particular student at the Conservatoire. The big throbbing melody seemed steadily to increase in speed and dynamics, to quite a climax.

This most welcome performance added to the little effort initiated with Stott’s performance on Tuesday of the splendid Prelude, chorale and fugue, no doubt driven by the pianist, to pay attention to Franck’s unjustly neglected masterpieces.

Friday 6 February

Waitangi Day has usually fallen during the festival and offers an obvious excuse to explore New Zealand music, familiar and unfamiliar.

Nicola Melville remembers Judith Clark and shared friends
The 1pm concert served to showcase former Wellington pianist Nicola Melville who now teaches at Carlton College Minnesota, in music associated with her teacher and mentor at Victoria University, Judith Clark who died last year.

The programme note explained that the pieces were by composers dear to Judith’s heart. And there was a second set of pieces by composers who are among Nicola’s favourites.

The first played was Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes, the first two written in 1946 and the last in 1981. They have become familiar through the sensitive performances by Margaret Nielsen of 40 years ago, and it was good to hear them played by a pianist with a couple of generations’ longer perspective, of their acceptance as among the most characteristic of Lilburn’s piano music.

Then followed a new commission called simply, Gem, by Gareth Farr, a kaleidoscope of shifting tones, sentiment and sparkle. Its performance was full of affection and delight.

Ross Harris recorded in note about his offering, In Memory – Judith Clark, which was written for her 80th birthday, that she addressed him ‘you flea’. In it there was an immediate feeling of sadness, the notes spaced in a gentle and thoughtful way. It seemed to touch a deeper vein, especially in Nicola’s delicate and sensitive performance.

Eve de Castro-Robinson marked her tribute to Judith, “free, capricious, whimsical”, and that was the case. It might have been a characterisation as much of Eve as of Judith, with its scampering, quirky wit, that may well have enlivened the meetings between the two.

Jack Body’s offering was changed from the advertised Five Melodies to two pieces labelled ‘Old Fashioned Songs’, in Body’s inimitable treatment of them: Silver Threads among the Gold and Little Brown Jug. The expected and the unexpected in ‘Threads’, diversions from cadences that the ear and mind might have expected, yet enough of the original remained to tease. The ‘jug’ was treated to semi-staccato, spaced plantings of notes, it increased steadily in complexity, liveliness and interest, and Melville played them both with clarity and a keen sense of their wit and eccentricities.

Nicola in America
The music then moved abroad, to the United States. The first composer was an avant-gardist with wit and a mind to entertain: Jacob TV which is the American version of his Dutch name, Jacob ter Veldhuis. The Body of Your Dreams is a scathing look at the mindless world of TV advertising, using tapes and loops, rock idioms, of an advert for an electronic weight-loss programme, using repeated words a few of which I could pick up like ‘fat’, ‘press the button’ ‘no sweat’, ‘amazing’, the language of the bottom end of youth culture, advertising and the electronic media.

The piano was very busy in collaboration with the junk-burdened noises on the tape, good for a moment’s contemplation of the meaning of music, satire and what passes for culture.

And finally, a return to a composer I think ranks high in Melville’s pantheon: William Albright who wrote a number of rags, among much else. These two were entitled: Dream Rags, comprising The Nightmare Rag, with the parenthesis suggesting Night on Rag Mountain (though I detected no hint of Mussorgsky) and Sleepwalker’s Shuffle. They were, I have to confess, closer to the idiom of ragtime than the pieces by Novacek heard a few days before. In any case, Melville was very much at home with them and they delighted the audience.

Verklärte Nacht in the evening
The 7:30pm concert called on The Song Company and both string quartets. The Song Company sang songs from the 14th and 16th centuries. William Cornish’s ‘Ah Robin, gentle Robin’ with the singers taking varied roles, the men first and then the women while conductor Peelman accompanied with a drum; voices and the drum steadily rose in pitch and intensity, as the words revealed the singer’s despondency at the realisation of his lover’s likely faithlessness.

‘Where to shud I expresse’ possibly by Henry VIII followed, along with the anonymous, c1350 song ‘The Westron Wynde’, each a lament on a lover’s fickleness, or at least, absence. Here was the style of singing that best suited The Song Company, capturing lovers’ troubles with individual voices most advantageously on display, between their coming together to create beautiful vocal fusion.

Two New Zealand pieces were Lilburn’s Phantasy for Quartet, and John Cousin’s Duos for violin and viola of 1973. The Lilburn was a 1939 exercise written at the Royal College, for Vaughan Williams, winning the William Cobbett Prize. Here was a nice link with the previous song bracket, as Lilburn used the tune from The Westron Wynde, at first with restraint, and then increasingly energetic. The New Zealand String Quartet gave it a sweet, loving performance; apart from an early performance in Christchurch, I think it was said to be the near premiere in New Zealand.

Cousin’s three duos were Waltz Lee, Lullaby for Peter and Polka for Elliot, very much a family affair. These early examples of the composer’s work are charming, characteristic, offering a nice opportunity to hear other than his more commonly encountered electro-acoustic music. They were played engagingly by Janet and Phillip Ying.

The Ying Quartet returned in full to play their own arrangement of an Alleluia composed by Randall Thompson in response to the early years of the Second World War. There were hints of Samuel Barber sure enough, but its somewhat incongruous lamenting character in contrast to its title, led to an interesting, quite complex contrapuntal piece; the quartet may well have made it something of a personal utterance.

Which left the rest of the concert to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht). The programme note described it rightly as ‘his glorious Sextet’, and this performance by the New Zealand String Quartet, plus the violist and cellist from the Ying Quartet, made a wonderfully rich and emotional job of it.

Saturday 7 February

Cornerstone Classics – Haydn and Mozart
Here, on the festival’s last day, was the chance to hear three New Zealand players not otherwise represented. Their style however, conformed with the approach to early music that was one of the hall-marks of the Song Company. Douglas Mews at the fortepiano and Euan Murdoch on the cello are well-known exponents of ‘period performance practice’; the violinist replacing the advertised Catherine Mackintosh, Anna van der Zee, is a regular member of the NZSO’s first violins, but proved to be fully sensitive to the playing style considered appropriate for the ‘classical’ period.

Two Haydn piano trios (Hob.XV/18 and 19) enclosed Mozart’s violin sonata in C, K 403. The feathery decoration applied to Haydn’s G minor trio enhanced the fortepiano’s lightness of sound, which in turn coloured the playing by the two stringed instruments. Even for one who is perfectly used to music played in accordance with historical practice, the first impression when a new and, I must confess, unfamiliar piece is played, is of a touch of the insubstantial. But the ears quickly adjust. Haydn’s trio in A (No 18), played after the Mozart, was as full or ornaments as was No 19, but more lightened with wit, and quirky gestures as well as the modulations that even one quite used to Haydn’s behaviour finds surprising.

I really enjoyed Mozart’s violin sonata, played in comparable, genuine style, it sounded closer to the Romantic era than Haydn, even though written ten years earlier; it’s part of an incomplete set that his friend the clarinettist Anton Stadler tidied up/completed. The first movement is marked by a strong rhythm, with an unusually emphatic first note in the bar, or at least that is the way it was played (I hadn’t heard it before). It seemed that the Andante might have been marked molto andante on account of its rather imposing slowness. I found the whole thing very attractive and so it did surprise me that I hadn’t come across it before.

Grand finale –cries of the cities
No doubt the big crowd at the final concert in the cathedral was there mainly for the Brahms Sextet. Yet there may well have been a good deal of curiosity about the set of seven ‘cries’; they filled the first half.

They involved, again, both quartets and the Song Company. The order departed from that in the programme. First came not the earliest, but the Cries of London by Orlando Gibbons, inspired by the earlier Cries of Paris. It’s a far cry from Gibbons’s familiar madrigals and keyboard pieces with its colourful and probably sociologically interesting words and atmosphere.

Louise Webster’s Cries of Kathmandu succeeded in using music of a generalised Indian character embroidered with Hindu religious imagery to paint an intriguing though on balance, distressing picture of a once charming subalpine city largely ruined by capitalism and mass tourism.

It was a short step to Jack Body’s Cries from the Border, a piece typifying the composer’s profound human and political concerns, now coloured by his own imminent mortality. The tale of the fate of German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, trapped on the French-Spanish border attempting to escape from Vichy France and the Nazis in 1940. Body wrote: “Unlike Benjamin, I am a traveller reluctant to transit. But the sentence has been pronounced…”. Musically it expressed these complex emotions committedly and convincingly.  Jack Body was there to stand for the applause.

The Cries of Paris of c. 1530 by Clément Janequin was a predictable sequel. Like that of its imitator Gibbons, it did contain the cries of the city’s street vendors, which were no mere medieval phenomenon, but petered out only around the First World War. The performance left no doubt about the reason for their survival and now renewed popularity.

Then came two New Zealand latter-day efforts: Cries of Auckland by Eve de Castro Robinson which dealt with the anti-Springbok Tour and the cries of the protesters throughout the country, still vivid in the memories of all of us who were involved: “1 2 3 4, we don’t want your racist tour! … Shame! Shame! …Amandla, Amandla”  and hints of later protests about asset-sales and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

And Chris Watson contributed a comparable political offering from Wellington. More words, and a wider lens: the morning commuter trials (cries of frustration?), the dramatic revealing of Wellington Harbour at the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge (cries of spiritual uplift?), but then the realities of political Wellington at the time of the negative, dirty politics, election campaign – the cries of debate, perhaps the cries of hopelessness, from the victims of the victory of inequality.

Brahms Sextet
The Ying Quartet plus the violist and cellist of the New Zealand String Quartet had the last word, with the glorious second string sextet by Brahms (Op 36). Reference is usually made, and was here, to the belief that it contained hidden reference to Agathe von Siebold with whom he had been in love with a few years before, encoded in the first theme of the first movement. Typically, Brahms shied away from commitment, which he apparently later regretted. The work’s high emotional intensity, especially the Adagio, slow movement, can colour the listening experience, but it hardly matters what specific narrative the listener allows to accompany a performance, for it is such a transcendent experience from the young composer, aged 33.

These festivals have often succeeded in bringing things to a conclusion with a musical creation of unusual splendour and emotional power. This one achieved that very movingly.


Nelson chamber music festival: the second three days, with a trip to St Arnaud

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part Two

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Monday 2 to Wednesday 4 February

Monday 2 February

PianoFest I: Dance
Sunday’s rain which had been threatened to continue today, disappeared and there was sun first thing, but clouds soon returned and umbrellas reappeared as we set off for the 10.30 PianoFest I: Dance.

It featured four prominent New Zealand pianists: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge and Sarah Watkins. ‘Dance’ was a rather approximate term as the first piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose, in the original piano duet form, was not designed for dancing; though Ravel’s later orchestration was in fact expanded into a ballet in 1912. I don’t know how successful it was or how much it is performed today. But predominantly it consists of charming, quiet depictions of some of Perrault’s (and others’) famous fairy stories. It was played by Jian Liu and Sarah Watkins, who brought to each scene a wonderful delicacy, precision, an awareness of the spirit of each tale and the pianistic colours demanded by that character. There were vivid revelations in each of the five movements – a special finesse in the depiction of the Beauty and the Beast (Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête).

There were three pieces by New Zealand composers: David Hamilton’s Three Rags were genuine dance material, closer to the Scott Joplin originals than the elaborate and over-sophisticated rags by Novacek, heard the day before. These were for eight hands at two pianos, positioned face to face, Watkins and de Pledge on the Steinway on the left and Guerin and Liu at the Yamaha on the right. Lilburn’s rather untypical Tempo di Bolero written when he was flatting in his twenties in Christchurch with Leo Benseman and Lawrence Baigent, both pianists. So it was for three pianists, in very close proximity; the three this time were, treble to bass, Guerin, Liu and Watkins. It was an energetic piece, that rather burdened the bolero rhythms with complexity, but nevertheless made one rather wish that Lilburn had been drawn into the business of composing for the theatre, to find the sort of popular success that Farquhar found with his Ring round the Moon music. Though the three Canzonettas, that were played on Wednesday in the Stabat Mater concert were teasing hints at what might have developed if the climate had been different.

The last piece in the programme was an extended exploration of Bottom’s characterisation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘A Tedious Brief Scene: Bottom’s Dance’ by Leonie Holmes. The employment of all four pianists (left: Watkins, Guerin; right: de Pledge and Liu) imposed a certain chaos on the music that depicted Bottom, the butt of jokes and teasing, through rhythms and in the handling of musical ideas.

Also in the hour-long programme was the third Slavonic dance from Dvořák’s first set, in the composer’s original piano duet form. It occurred to me that we could use a couple of nationwide recitals featuring the two pianists, de Pledge and Guerin, doing the entire two books of these small masterpieces.

The only music by Scharwenka that I knew till a few years ago was this Polish Dance (Op 3 No 1) that both my wife and I were surprised to confess to have played, after a fashion, in our youth. The programme note explained how commonplace our experience was, noting that it had been one of the ‘greatest hits’ of its time, the sheet music selling in millions.

Prokofiev’s own piano arrangement of parts of his Romeo and Juliet ballet is for one pianist – here, Stephen de Pledge alone. The Lily Dance of the Maidens: curious and careful, contrasting with the heavy, confrontational Montagues and Capulets.

In the afternoon we got PianoFest II
It was advertised as ‘World Voyage’, for the usual reason of widespread composer birthplaces, though the distribution was pretty normal: France and Germany, the United States and a couple of pieces by New Zealanders.

This festival has been given a certain quirky interest by pairing music that has been transformed, generally by the composer from the original instrumentation to something else.

Beethoven featured twice. Late in his life, he had rewritten his third piano trio (heard on Sunday), as a string quintet (heard on Saturday); and on Monday we heard his Piano Sonata in E, Op 14 No 1 which he later transcribed as a string quartet to be heard on Wednesday from the young Nelson quartet, The Troubadours.

The Piano sonata was the first piece in the PianoFest II programme and it was played by Jian Liu.

I was enchanted by Liu’s playing of this unpretentious sonata, evincing a very carefully considered, understated performance of beautiful delicacy, with fleet little decorative passages, that, again, made me long to hear Liu in performances of a lot more Beethoven.

The contribution from France was Messiaen’s Regard du silence from the huge canvas, the Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jésus, played with enormous authority by David Guerin. From the United States: John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction for two pianos, from Stephen and Sarah who exploited the interesting sonic possibilities that Adams wrote into his boisterous piece.

New Zealand composer Sarah Ballard wrote a set of four pieces representing the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire and water, and here we heard the four pianists (treble to bass, left to right: de Pledge, Guerin, Watkins and Liu) in two that portrayed an ancient Mexican cave and Mount Erebus.

A different disposition of the four pianists then played Gareth Farr’s Bintang, probably danceable enough, but a stimulating and impressive listen.

Bach by Candlelight
The evening concert was the focus on Bach which has become a key element in the festival. It was made particularly distinguished as the first appearance of The Song Company; and the forces also included both resident string quartets Douglas Mews (organ), Robert Orr (oboe) and Loan Perernau Garriga (double bass).

To start, Ying Quartet’s leader Ayano Ninomiya gave an impressive performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No 3 for solo violin, and followed with Eugène Isaÿe’s astonishing treatment of the music  in his second sonata for solo violin. The performances of both pieces were distinguished by extremely high technical brilliance and artistic integrity.

The first of Bach’s vocal pieces on the programme was Jesu meine Freude. This is one of Bach’s real masterpieces and demands exquisite balance and blending between parts and both richness and dramatic characterization. Inner parts sounded too prominent, and though each voice was technically assured, the tone was not uniform; I am not bothered by vibrato in baroque music, but here it obtruded occasionally. Here was an example, I felt, when the possibly authentic use of one voice to a part made it very hard to meet achieve a simple, beautiful, dramatic performance.

Hannah Fraser sang the best-known aria from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Erbarme dich’. I’d loved her Brahms songs the night before, but was not so convinced by this, perhaps on account of a voice that was so warm and emotional, beautifully adapted to the 19th century, but didn’t meet the stylistic expectations that have become normal for Bach today. Her lovely accompaniment was from a blend of players from the two quartets plus bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga and organist Douglas Mews.

Soprano Mina Kanaridis sang the gorgeous aria, ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’, from Cantata No 68, with a real sense of ecstasy and conviction. But the real triumph of the concert was the performance by bass Alexander Knight of the cantata Ich habe genug (Cantata No 82), with a simply superb voice, and a stage demeanour that commanded the entire space both by means of his penetrating gaze at his audience and the sombre expressiveness of his singing. He was supported admirably by oboist Robert Orr, and again bassist Perernau Garriga and Mews at the chamber organ, all three of whom had given comparable backing to Mina Kanaridis.

A second instrumental piece was the third of Bach’s not often played Gamba Sonatas (BWV1029): on Gillian Ansell’s viola, accompanied by Douglas Mews, it was modest and unpretentious, and free of artifice of any kind.


Tuesday 3 February

To St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti
This was the day of the lake: when the music and the pass holders go to St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti where the Ying Quartet play in the lovely little chapel whose windows give on the beech forest and to the distant mountains. We walk to the School of Music where the bus will depart at 9.30am. The uncertainty of the weather, though the sun was shining then, means there is a wide variety of dress, from optimists to pessimists: I was in the middle with a light jacket and proper shoes.

Most of the way in through varied farmland and the series of villages south of Nelson till we turn off after about half an hour; the road becomes more winding and we travel through more plantation forest; almost no native trees apart from occasional patches of totara till within about five miles of St Arnaud. Why did the State allow land sales and native forest felling to make way for exotics so close to this beautiful lake? However, the immediate environment is largely beech.

After morning tea at the Visitor Centre we go to the little chapel where the Ying Quartet is already seated, backs to the windows, while the audience gets lovely views of close kanuka and more distant beech.

Quartets by Haydn and Tchaikovksy and a trio by Anthony Ritchie
The acoustic is gorgeous in the small timbered space with its curved laminated beams that create the feel of a vaulted gothic crossing; and the first few minutes are spent wallowing in the immediacy of the individual and collective sounds of the Haydn first movement. Better than at earlier performances we could here enjoy the quartet’s elegant and sensitive playing, Haydn’s wit and teasing, all with such care for the ebb and flow of phrases and dynamics.

The programme is Haydn, Op 20 No 4, Tchaikovsky, Quartet No 1 and a trio by Anthony Ritchie, entitled Spring String Trio. The Tchaikovsky drew more power and drama from the players, their painstaking attention to fluctuating dynamics and rhythmic effects more exploited.

In introducing Ritchie’s little piece, in which leader, Ayano Ninomiya stood down, giving the violin part to second violin Janet Ying, Phillip Ying referred to the piece as Spring String Ying Trio. Though commissioned as a birthday present, its tone was initially serious though quite brisk: getting older is no laughing matter.

But it was a delight to hear Janet Ying’s fine, confident violin playing, unobscured by her leader’s dominance, which is the common fate of the second violin. Its slower second section cemented its place as a small but substantial work.

Helene Pohl talks with the four PianoFest pianists
Back in Nelson later in the afternoon, it was the turn of the four pianists participating in the PianoFest, to chat with Helene Pohl. As well as exploring each pianist’s early experiences, and how a commitment to a professional career emerged, there was interesting discussion on the sense or otherwise of multi-pianist performances such as we had at the first and second ‘PianoFests’: the consensus was that it was fundamentally an eccentricity and perhaps stupid, except for Schubert’s which were justified as a means of getting very close to members of the opposite sex.

Kathryn Stott
Kathryn Stott’s major piano recital was in the evening. It demonstrated her special interest in French music with Ravel’s Sonatine, a nocturne by Fauré, L’Isle joyeuse by Debussy and Franck’s formidable Prelude, chorale and fugue. Their variety, and the rare hearing of the splendid Franck made it a memorable and, for the many probably unfamiliar with Franck, a revelatory event. The second half was dominated by Stott’s illuminating playing of the original piano version of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, too rarely heard, that restored Grieg’s place as a great piano composer; the rest was from South America, Villa-Lobos’s Choros No 5, Guanieri’s Danza negra and Ginastera’s Dance No 2 from Argentinian Dances. It ended terrifyingly with a rather extended, killer piece she had commissioned from Graham Fitkin called Relent, evidently a mark of his sense of humour since its speed, ferocity, complexity and sheer impossibility for anyone less than a Stott, was utterly unrelenting.

Wednesday 4 February  

The anchors of the festival
Three main groups provide the backbone of this year’s festival. The New Zealand String Quartet of course; the Ying Quartet from the United States; and the Song Company from Australia. Some festivals are very particular in the range of musical genres, but most like to include players that lie perhaps a little apart from the popular central element of a festival’s character.

Several times it has been a singer or singers. That is excellent because the world of chamber music tends to give rise to somewhat narrow areas of acceptability for quite a few, who might just surprise themselves if they ventured out of their narrow comfort zone.

So the Song Company had an important role to play in a festival like this, and they tackle it on several different levels: inserting a couple of Brahms Lieder in a chamber music programme; doing several of Bach best loved choruses and arias alongside violin pieces; testing the water with a wide variety of styles and musical periods – Medieval and Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the Baroque, the classical and the romantic periods, the modern or twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

And of course, there are factions within each of those categories, those who turn off early music, or scorn romantic music, or art songs, or opera but love religious choral music, find English music boring, and so on.

Roland Peelman and The Song Company
A challenge to all these limiting fads and fashions was offered on Wednesday morning in the vigorous and wide-ranging discussion between Rolf Gjelsten and Roland Peelman, the director of The Song Company.

As with all these sessions designed to shed light on the making of a musician, this began with Peelman’s description of the unmusical life in a small Flemish town in Belgium where, from nowhere, a strong musical impulse arose, that sought out a music teacher at about age eight and induced the family to buy a piano. Then a quite rich musical life at a boarding school, a useless year at a local conservatorium (he mentioned almost no Belgian place names apart from Ghent), but more fruitful general education at university.

His learning went on to Cologne, the base of the post-Darmstadt, avant-garde school led by Stockhausen, and it included the important (for Peelman) teaching of Alois Kontarsky (you’ll remember him from a chamber group at one of the very early New Zealand Festivals in Wellington in the late 1980s).

Insights into conducting came mainly from those with almost no standing as a conductor but with a flair for giving invaluable guidance and inspiration. One had said he could tell him everything about conducting technique in an hour but it would take a lifetime to learn.

While he had initially said that the impression of Australasians that Europe was seething with culture was delusional, his later account of rich and flourishing arts and music scenes in at least the main centres of Europe, hardly supported his argument. Much of what he said seemed to place high value on wide general cultural awareness and knowledge instead of on narrow, music-only, highly technical, and detailed analytical study.

His own wide exposure to literature, several languages, history, the arts generally and music in particular was enviable, especially in a country with steadily narrowing cultural and intellectual horizons.

Peelman was interesting about the close relationship between musicians who inhabited the avant-garde and those who explored early music performance practice from the 1970s. The one had spawned and informed the other; especially the realisation that one could not live on the former but there were growing audiences for the latter.

To Australia
His account of his shift to Australia in 1982 was fascinating. His contact with Aboriginal ‘Dreaming’ music at Waggawagga left a mark on his brain; his first job was at Mt Gambier on the South Australia/Victoria southern border teaching keyboard and singing and conducting the brass band.

Life became serious when he was appointed assistant chorus master at Australian Opera in Sydney, in the far-off days when the company had 22 productions in its annual repertoire (now about half that in a good year; it was the late 80s when I started going to Australia to make wonderful opera discoveries). Though he allowed himself reservations about aspects of opera as spectacle and its perception as amusement for the wealthy (“music takes second place”, he said – maybe, but not for me), he gained varied and valuable skills, describing the hectic, non-stop life as intoxicating.

Then in 1990 came an offer of appointment with The Song Company, Australia’s only full-time professional small choir. He had much to say about its evolution, about the fundamental contrast between four and six voices. A finally he disclosed that, after 25 years, he’s ready to take on something else.

PianoFest IV
After lunch on this fine day, when the rain had gone, the fourth in the series of PianoFests, which had been planned and organised by Stephen de Pledge as a mini-festival-within-a-festival, took place in Old St John’s, as its deconsecrated embodiment is now known.

More multi-pianist performances, this one subtitled ‘Opera’. Official participants were: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge, Sarah Watkins.

The first, played by De Pledge by himself was Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde. Liszt had the taste to ensure that Wagner’s scoring did not lose anything in the process, and the piano version moved just as ecstatically from calm grief to necro-erotic frenzy.

Nor did the transcription of the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg suffer with four hands at two piano (Stephen on piano A, left, and David Guerin on piano B, right); in the transcription by Max Reger, its lines were if anything etched with more clarity than in the original.

But the real revelation was the fantasia drawing melodies from Bellini’s wonderful opera, Norma, by Czerny, a contemporary of Bellini, as well as of Rossini and Schubert. He was a piano teacher and composer of piano etudes and impossible exercises: this one for six hands at one piano. The emotions remained alive and well, and the rhythmic pulse under the final heart-rending melody, rather undid me.

It lay in the way he spread the melodies to the very limits of the keyboard, with not inappropriate adornments; inter alia, it called for De Pledge, in the treble position, to reach repeatedly with his right arm across Sarah Watkins to plant notes outside of his own territory; Sarah was wedged between, with David Guerin at the bass. The combination, towards the end, of exciting, pulsing bass rhythms and gorgeous, heart-rending melody, rather undid me. As I remarked yesterday, I felt, as the result of the glorious music that Bellini wrote for this great opera, and Czerny’s sensitive and exciting treatment, that this piece had a serious independent existence, vindicating the genre of six or more hands at one piano.

Then came another kind of novelty, though it was not altogether clear whether Double F for Freddie, had another life as some kind of opera, it was, as described, a humorous romp at the very limits of one piano: viz. four at one keyboard – from top to bottom, Guerin, Watkins, Liu, with de Pledge offering, as far as I could see, just the final deep bass note at the end.

Carmen for the madhouse
Then came an indescribable, extraordinary party piece devised by De Pledge for all four pianists in riotous disarray. It’s mainly Carmen, but there are other impertinences: Die Fledermaus, and Sarah suddenly interrupting Stephen doing Micaela’s act 3 aria with the opening of Grieg’s piano concerto, which was the signal for the arrival of other players, of growing chaos, of shifting piano stools, of forcible position changes at different keyboards, some corruptions like the Habanera delivered by Jian with feminine delicacy.

Carmen herself arrives (Rae de Lisle), tosses the rose to the pianists and then joins the riot. Five at two keyboards is unbalanced however, and De Pledge set out to find another pianist in the audience, and finally forcibly arrests Kathy Stott; she puts up a considerable fight to avoid this unseemly press-gang musical recruitment but joined the chaos of six at two keyboards with gusto to deliver the coup-de-grace to Carmen.

The third event of the day was at 6.30pm in the Cathedral, restoring a more orderly and civilised tone. The Troubadours, the noted student string quartet, who have been spotted around the city during the week, playing at schools and charities, were here to play Mozart’s Divertimento K 136, and the old filmic hit, Over the Rainbow. In particular, they played Beethoven’s own arrangement for string quartet of his piano sonata in E, Op 14 No 1.

These players, students variously at Auckland, Waikato and Victoria universities, were Julian Baker, Hilary Hayes, Jin Kim and Heather Lewis. Their playing was stylistically idiomatic, beautifully articulated, nicely phrased and judged for gentle rhythmic and dynamic variations.

Stabat Mater
This title referred of course to the great Pergolesi cantata that filled the second half. Sung by two sopranos from The Song Company, Mina Kanaridis and Anna Fraser, it was accompanied by the Ying Quartet, minus Janet Ying, plus Donald Armstrong and Douglas Mews at the chamber organ.

For a work that is so famous and so well-loved, I have heard it too few times, more in other countries than in New Zealand. I think it is no longer spoken of as it once was, with a degree of scorn or superciliousness, the result of a piece of music being too much loved on account of its beauty, not a virtue in mid-20th century avant-garde circles.

This performance was truly beautiful, fully justifying the employment mainly of the festival guests from Australia and the United States. The voices expressed the overwrought religious grieving that lies at the heart of the medieval poem, with sobriety and restraint, as well as extraordinarily sensitive control of tempi and expressive gesture. Led by Ayano Ninomiya’s strong but scrupulously handled violin, the ensemble gave a performance that would have impressed the most discriminating audiences anywhere in the world.

The earlier part of the concert had comprised a lovely Song without Words by Gillian Whitehead from Rolf Gjelsten’s solo cello. Donald Armstrong and Gillian Ansell played Lilburn’s entrancingly lyrical Three Canzonettas for violin and viola. Ayano Ninomiya delivered a Kreisler piece of high virtuosity and musical interest, breathtakingly.

Then the Song Company appeared to sing El fuego by Mateo Flecha, a 16th century (and so, contemporary with Tudor England) Spanish (Catalan) ‘ensalada’, in five parts, or was it six?  Vividly Hispanic, it and its performance were a delight.

All this highly heterogeneous material made it one of the most unexpected and delightful programmes of the festival.


Thirteenth Nelson chamber music festival better than ever: the first three days

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part One

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Friday 30 January to Sunday 1 February


Coverage of this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival (the 13th) will be divided into three parts. This first part covers the concerts, ignoring the Gala Dinner on Thursday the 29th at which an ad hoc variety of music was played, from Friday 30 January to Sunday 1 February. Parts 2 and 3 will follow.

Readers who have been drawn to the website of Chamber Music New Zealand will recognize among the following reviews of this year’s festival, texts that appeared under a pseudonym in the former source. Readers will notice that the style for the CMNZ website was rather more casual that has become the pattern in Middle C, and perhaps it is a style that we should adopt.

The aim of CMNZ was to create a lively impression of the whole environment of the festival – the geographical and cultural setting, and the weather, for those who don’t know Nelson; after all, it is by far the largest and most varied chamber music presentation in New Zealand. The atmosphere created by the artistic leadership and management which was so inclusive and welcoming, peripheral activities that audience members might have enjoyed.

The key players of the festival were: Colleen Marshall, the longstanding chair of the Nelson Music Festival Trust; Bob Bickerton, the ubiquitous manager, multi-instrumentalist, trouble-shooter, master 0f ceremonies and introducer of many of the concerts; the artistic directors, Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, who double as the first violinist and violist of the New Zealand String Quartet.

The New Zealand String Quartet has been the musical anchor of the festival from the beginning in 1992, and they gave many performances on their own and shared the stage, individually and as a whole, with many of the other performers including, most importantly, the Ying Quartet.

From Wellington to Nelson
We took the long road to Nelson as we’ve often done before: across the Strait in magnificent weather from that foreign country, the North Island, leaving the stark, dry, Brent Wong hills of Cape Terawhiti, to reach the dramatic, green and delightful Marlborough Sounds. Coffee at Blenheim’s well-preserved railway station, overnight at Kaikoura with the looming, jagged Seaward Kaikouras to westward, then inland by the Leaders Road to Waiau and Hanmer Springs, which becomes more Swiss alpine with every passing year.

I never tire of the Lewis Pass, first cycled in my teens over unsealed roads, memories still clear, of heat, very rare traffic, dips in the rivers, and the arrival of sandflies with the beech forests around the pass.

It’s a long, still largely uninhabited drive, through 33 degree Murchison, to Nelson, spotting traces of the sadly aborted Railway, victim of faint hearts, north from Gowan Bridge.

Our favourite back-packer’s awaited us in Nelson – we’ve stayed there for more than ten years; mainly young, foreign visitors, German, French, Dutch, occasional Swedish, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, generally much younger than us: intelligent, well-read, liberal – even radical, with refreshing, unclouded views about New Zealand. After coming back late evening from a concert, there’s still time to fix the world.

Ah, yes – the concerts.

Changes in 2015
There are still opinions about the benefits of having compressed the former 17-day festival into 10 days, which was a change at the 2013 festival. It somewhat reduces flexibility for excursions like to Golden Bay, but you can get more music in a shorter time.

The big change at the 2015 festival is the sad closure for strengthening of the Nelson School of Music (whose example of the European pattern of music conservatories in every town failed to take root here) and its replacement by St John’s church on Hardy Street. At least, the church was designed by the same architect as the School of Music, and the sound is lovely.

We were assured by Bob Bickerton that the strengthening and improvements to the school of music would be complete for the next festival in 2017: improvements will include air conditioning and better facilities for the audience and performers.

Friday 30 January  

The Grand Opening Concert, however, was as usual in the Cathedral. They wheel in some of the festival’s main performers: the New Zealand String Quartet of course, whose initiative the festival was back in 1992, the New York-based Ying Quartet, clarinettist David Griffiths and harpist Helen Webby. Greater variety of music and means would be hard to devise, no doubt opening ears for many in the
audience. As ethnically mixed as our hostel: French, Russian-Jewish-Argentinian, Hungarian, German and New Zealand. The only ‘main-stream’ piece was one of Schumann’s rather neglected, but highly rewarding, Quartets (in F).

For most, there was no familiar piece, yet the audience seemed delighted: at the beguiling opening section of the violin and harp Fantaisie by Saint-Säens (played by Ying Quartet first violinist Ayano Ninomiya and harpist Helen Webby); then a sonic adventure in Florence by Hamilton composer, Martin Lodge, played by the cellists from the two string quartets, one the observer, the other the manifold sounds of the city and its people.

The New Zealand String Quartet and David Griffiths played a three movement piece by Osvaldo Golijov whose opera, Ainadamar, on Garcia Lorca astonished last year’s New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Based on writing by an early Jewish rabbi, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind mixed hypnotic Klezmer rhythms with the outlandish sounds that came from Griffiths’ five clarinets (hardly knew there were so many models), and he followed with a brief solo clarinet piece by Béla Kovács.

The main course in the second half was the little-known Schumann quartet, in F major, Op 41 No 2, played by the Ying Quartet. A highly persuasive performance, revealing a beautiful slow movement and highly inventive Scherzo.

I bought the Ying’s CD of the three Schumann quartets.  What greater endorsement could there be? 

Saturday 31 January 

It rained lightly overnight and was a bit cooler. A late start? But the temptation of hearing Gillian Ansell talking with Kathryn Stott at 10 am abbreviated breakfast rituals. It was in St John’s church.

Kathryn Stott
She proved a thoroughly unpretentious virtuoso star, born in a town called Nelson in Lancashire of working class parents with musical interests if not great accomplishment; but enough to detect and encourage piano learning aged five which led at eight to her applying for and being accepted in the Menuhin school. Though her first years were productive and contented, by her teens she had fallen into the hands of an unsympathetic teacher, chronically embittered in Kathryn’s opinion, and she left to enter the Royal College of Music. Things went well there, encountering both Nadia Boulanger and Vlado Perlumuter who gave her deep sensibility into French music. She did not disgrace herself when, perhaps prematurely, she entered the Leeds Piano Competition; it led to an agent and sudden demands for a much bigger repertoire than she commanded. Her career seemed to be spinning out of control and before long she withdrew entirely.

But after picking herself up, she had an unusual and fruitful encounter with Yo Yo Ma and success came quickly; finally, at the peak of her career, she finds herself in a Nelson on the other side of the world.  A real insight into her talent and naturalness, and determination to hear everything she will play here.

Lines from the Nile
After lunch, a small musico-dramatic show took place in the church hall. A piece called Lines from the Nile, recreating a musical soiree in colonial Nelson, in a hall such as we inhabited. Soprano Rowena Simpson graduated from Victoria University before heading for the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague to study early music practice. That was more than 15 years ago.

Back in Wellington she puts her training to excellent use; this time, in a satirical piece that purported to celebrate Queen Victoria’s wedding with Prince Albert: soprano Mrs Garratt with her compliant accompanist, Mr Hammersmith (Douglas Mews). A text by Jacqueline Coats, who also directed, it uses music by Haydn, who had been appropriated by the English – the couple performed, with hilarious histrionic flair, jingoistic piety, several pieces with an English connection, glorying in British naval supremacy, expurgated references to Nelson and Lady Hamilton, his naval victories at the Nile and Trafalgar, and the glories of Empire.

Quintessence = quintets
The daily swim at Tahunanui was fitted in before the evening concert, again in the Cathedral, entitled Quintessence, a careful distortion to mean music for five. The quintets were delightful rarities: the first, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Piano Trio, Op 1 No 3, which utterly removed any sense of its origin through the use of a second violin and two violas. Joining NZ String Quartet players were the Ying’s leader, Ayano Ninomiya and violist, Phillip Ying. Emphatically, it deserves to be ranked equal with the original.

The second was Bruckner’s little known quintet, again employing two violas (this time, Ying players Janet Ying – violin and again Phillip). Bruckner is a bit of an acquired taste: I have acquired it chronically and incurably, though it’s a long time since I aired my recordings of this quintet. The Scherzo is entertaining and the Adagio rather beguiling, though undoubtedly needing two or three hearings for it to take root.

Along with those two biggies, Helen Webby returned with her harp (and charming comments about its origin) to play a piece written for her by Pepe Becker, better known as a fine early music soprano, and then a gorgeous performance with Helene Pohl of the famous Meditation from Thaïs.

Sunday 1 February

It had rained overnight and there was still rain in the air on Sunday morning. I woke at 9am but before I could have breakfast I went to the ‘Conversation’ this time between Helene Pohl and members of the Ying Quartet.

Helene Pohl talks with the Ying Quartet
Helene got them talking about their family and how each became musicians. They were a Chicago family, father a doctor, I inferred, clearly well off, who might have wished them to have pursued a more serious profession, but was supportive of their choices. At first there were four Yings in the quartet but the first violin left about five years ago, and they described the difficult process of finding a substitute; Ayano Ninomiya was the result, with whom the Yings are clearly very happy.

The two men, Phillip and David Ying, tended to talk most and were very articulate, told amusing anecdotes, particularly about their time under a National Endowment for the Arts scheme (the United States equivalent of an arts council) in a very small town in Iowa. It lasted for two years after which the NEA decided to divert the funding to an entirely different purpose. There was clear implied criticism of the ridiculously small federal budget for the arts.

It was an illuminating view into the richness of the US musical world, but also of its relative financial poverty in relation to the size of the country and its enormous wealth and ability to spend hugely on the military and related activities.

Kathryn Stott solo piano and in piano quartet
The 1pm concert at St John’s began with two New Zealand piano pieces played by Kathryn Stott: Waiting for the Aeroplane and Dance Fury by Gao Ping. It was good to hear the early Psathas played by such a gifted pianist who could plumb the emotional qualities that the music touches. Dance Fury was an extraordinary piece of ferocious virtuosity, which she played with tremendous energy and apparent enthusiasm.

The main item was Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in E flat. I had misgivings about it, as it was generally stronger in intensity, dynamic extremes, percussiveness than in delicacy and emotional sensitivity. I’m sure it would have benefitted from longer and less pressured rehearsal. However, this extrovert and flamboyant performance brought a standing ovation.

Conspicuous in the line-up which included Stott with violist Gillian Ansell and cellist David Ying was the second violinist from the New Zealand String Quartet: not Douglas Beilman, but Donald Armstrong who took his place following an injury to Beilman’s arm. Donald Armstrong is associate concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; he was also on hand in the Shostakovich piano quintet in the
evening concert, mentioned below.

Kathryn Stott and Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich
At 7.30pm, also at St John’s, Kathryn Stott was again in the limelight. With Gillian Ansell, she accompanied mezzo Hannah Fraser in two Brahms songs, from Op 91: Gestille Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied.  They were absolutely beautiful, revealing a voice (she is one of The Song Company) that sounded a perfect fit with Brahms in a characteristic deeply emotional mood. It was mellow and gentle but of wonderful richness and probably one of the finest mezzos in Australasia.

There followed Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3 which we heard in its quintet version the day before. It was not just that the string version sounded so perfectly adapted to that medium, as if conceived primarily for it, but for all Stott’s skill and temperament and interpretative powers, there was a sense of not being entirely at ease with each other. I sensed a feeling, mainly on the part of the violin and cello (Helene Pohl and David Ying), that they needed to match each other as well as to balance the vigour of the pianist. But then again, it was a fairly radical piece in its day – the one that Haydn was a bit cool towards.

The first half ended with Three Rags by John Novacek, played by the Ying Quartet. They took the Scott Joplin style of rag to extremes, and especially with the first, The Atlantic Side-step, that the plain sound of the string quartet was so foreign to the style that it really didn’t work. In the slow second piece, The Drifter, the strings did not seem such a bad fit, though the effect for me was still unconvincing. The last piece, Intoxication, was an exercise in pure frenzy and rhythmic and tonal excess, probably capturing a particularly agile and energetic drunk, but far too extreme to call for a second hearing.

In the second half Lilburn’s Inscapes II of 1972 was played over the sound system, confirming even more positively the strange obsession that Lilburn was prey to after about 1960, trying to turn himself into an avant-garde composer with equipment that has become so dated and so lifeless so quickly, though it’s true that musique concrete continues to attract some young composers – and to be employed by a very few more mature ones content to occupy a tiny niche position in music. For me these pieces are simply failed, if worthy, experiments which are dusted off occasionally in obeisance to the near-god-like stature that Lilburn has in New Zealand.

Then, without pause, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet began: Stott and the New Zealand String Quartet with Donald Armstrong in Doug Beilman’s place. There was no hint in the ensemble that Armstrong had not been a long-standing member of the quartet.

It’s a long time since I heard this played and though I had clear recollections of only the Scherzo and parts of the Fugue and the Finale, its impact was powerful, and its depth of feeling undeniable, ploughing ground similar to that of the Piano Trio and the Eighth Quartet, and this was a performance that understood what Shostakovich faced in 1940 after the worst of the Terror had passed, but as Stalin bought time (to put the best gloss on it) with a strategic alliance with Nazi Germany, aware that war was inevitable.


The twelfth Nelson Chamber Music Festival breaks records – again

Nelson 2013 International Chamber Music Festival

Principal participants: New Zealand and Penderecki string quartets, Darryl Poulsen, Peter Nagy, Colin Carr, NZ Trio, Jenny Wollerman, Diedre Irons, Emma Sayers, Richard Nunns, Bridget Douglas, Hiroshi Ikematsu and other NZSO players

Principal venues: Nelson Cathedral and Nelson School of Music

Friday 1 February to Saturday 9 February


The Nelson International Chamber Music Festival has become by far the largest classical music festival in the country, increasing the trend well established in Europe and North America, to build music festivals into summer holiday plans.

While the festival’s duration has been reduced from the previously normal length of some 17 days to ten, with more concerts each day, in all other respects it is bigger.

It was an enlargement in terms of the number of concerts (around 22 standard concerts) and probably the total number of pieces of music played (around 70).  Thanks to the flair and enterprise of festival manager Bob Bickerton, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, and the sane, charming hand of chair, Colleen Marshall, the numbers of seats sold exceeded previous records by some 40 percent with many concerts sold out or close to full. Provisional attendance figures approached 6000, 70 percent of whom come from outside Nelson. The impact on Nelson’s economy has reached a level that has led the City Council substantially to raise its support this year.

To compress 22 or so concerts into nine days has meant three or four concerts on some days which has suited some, but not others.

Opening: Friday – both quartets and horn and NZSO players

The Festival opened in the Cathedral with a varied concert that featured both theNew Zealandand the Penderecki string quartets, four players from the NZSO and horn player Darryl Poulsen.  Members of the Penderecki String Quartet, Canada-based, were the principal guests at this festival. It comprises Jeremy Bell and Jerzy Kaplanek (violins), Christine Vlajk (viola) and Katie Schlaikjer (cello).

Poulsen took part in two classic works that called for his instrument, by Mozart and Beethoven. The one piece without the horn was a rarity: Prokofiev’s quintet for winds and strings, Op 39.

Poulsen’s playing in both K 407 and Beethoven’s Septet, Op 20, was admirable: subtle, entertaining, creamy, delighting in the awful dangers that Mozart had jokingly thrown at his friend, horn player Joseph Leutgeb. The horn was hardly less taxed in the Beethoven; merely less in the limelight, as Philip Green’s clarinet and Hiroshi Ikematsu’s bass tended to catch the ear in brilliant passages.

The two quartets shared players; while Helene Pohl led the Mozart and Douglas Beilman the Prokofiev, the other players were drawn democratically from each quartet. Jerzy Kaplanek, the Penderecki’s second violinist, had the front desk in the Beethoven.

Perhaps the most revelatory piece was the Prokofiev fairly unfamiliar quintet which had started as music for a ballet called Trapeze. Revealing influences like Petrushka and Satie through its six movements, it was comic, oafish, flippant, dark, nervous, ghostly: attractive and interesting. It deserves to be better known.

Both the Mozart and the Beethoven, the first from Mozart’s full maturity, the second from Beethoven’s first evidence of conspicuous genius – the time of the Op 18 quartets, the first symphony and the first two piano concertos.  Both are the most genial and delightful pieces, and the players made the most of the bravura and wit as well as the rhythmically engaging and richly melodious character of the entire works.

Saturday: Piano preludes from Nagy

Pianist Peter Nagy made his festival debut at the Saturday afternoon concert in theSchoolofMusic. Nagy had taught atCanterburyUniversitya couple of years ago but left before his gifts were able to be fully appreciated in this country, at least outside ofChristchurch.

He modified his programme to begin with Liszt’s Totentanz, perhaps to reassure us that he knew how to drive the piano at full throttle, which he did, delivering a satanic, dramatically arresting performance. The rest of the hour was devoted to a juxtaposing of twelve each of preludes by Chopin and Scriabin, pairing those in the same keys, a procedure that drew attention of those not gifted with perfect pitch to the way in which keys create distinct moods and colours.  Nagy’s success lay in his capturing the character of each composer with beautiful finesse, rhythmic and dynamic fluency and naturalness. Chopin’s sharper clarity generally won on points; but Nagy’s enlivening of Scriabin’s elusive music gave plenty of encouragement to the further exploration of his huge output of preludes.

For the record, the following was the pattern of Nagy’s juxtaposing of the Chopin and Scriabin Preludes:

Chopin                        Scriabin:

C major                        C major Op.48 No.2
G major                        G major Op. 11 No.3
E major                        E major Op.15 No.3
F major                        F major Op.11 No.23
B minor                        B minor Op.37 No.1
E flat major                   E flat major Op.45 No.3
C sharp minor               C sharp minor Op.15 No.5
A major                        A major Op.11 No.7
B minor                        B minor Op.11 No.6
F sharp minor               F sharp minor Op.15 No.2
B flat major                  B flat major Op.35 No.2
D minor                        D minor Op. 11 No.24f

Mahler’s 4th from 15 musicians, on Saturday evening

The Saturday evening may have looked like the highlight, even the raison d’être, of the festival. But the competition for that position proved very strong. However, the prospect of Mahler’s lyrical Fourth Symphony, in a remarkable reduction, for 14 musicians and soprano Jenny Wollerman, was certainly much more than a mere curiosity. Under the baton of Michael Joel, it was surprisingly well balanced and the playing by NZSO wind players, plus the two quartets (in repertoire probably unfamiliar to them), made it all sound as if this was what Mahler had really conceived. If there were the obvious moments when these small forces (that included striking passages from hornist Poulsen, NZSO percussionists Lenny Sakofsky and Bruce McKinnon, and bass player Hiroshi Ikematsu) missed the magnificent impact of big climaxes, there were some plusses.

Often the small ensemble proved a perfectly splendid vehicle for the music (it’s probably the only Mahler symphony where such treatment would work); sometimes able to increase dramatic force, it hardly affected the breathless beauties of the third movement, Ruhevol, with more than usually luminous solos from cello, oboe, viola, double bass; and in the last movement Wollerman’s beautifully placed voice created an experience that the full orchestra might scarcely have bettered.

Not to forget the first half however, when the Penderecki Quartet played Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet (K 465) in which a sense of deep familiarity with the piece enabled them to do things that sounded quite original, perhaps far beyond the expectations of a late 18th century audience; for example, the carefully obscure rhythm at the opening of the slow movement, and surprising pauses.

Composer Ross Harris was at the festival for a few days to hear premieres of two pieces and to talk about a discovery relating to Ligeti’s Horn Trio.  At this concert New Zealand String Quartet violist Gillian Ansell premiered a Chaconne that she had commissioned from him, a piece that seemed aimed at least in part to exploit the player’s skills in extended techniques which may have interfered somewhat with the creation of an easily followed musical process. There were fragmentary lyrical moments but also towards the end, some brief vocalisations which had the effect of humanising the piece.

Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a jato (Jet whistle) for flute and cello seemed to be pursuing a similar path, treading amusingly around the edges of the flute’s normal range. It presented no apparent difficulties to flutist Bridget Douglas and cellist Rolf Gjelsten who knitted together its oddities, wit and scraps of tune, ending with the eponymous screech from Bridget.

Sunday 3 February
Minguet Quartet

The festival’s third day, Sunday, was a major test of commitment and endurance. There were three concerts: in the morning, the Minguet String Quartet, a fairly young group of three Germans and a Romanian violist; in the evening, two pieces featuring Darryl Poulsen’s French horn; and in the afternoon, in the Cathedral, cellist Colin Carr played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites.

Each included something unusual.

The Minguet’s programme began rather unconvincingly with a couple of the Contrapuncti from Bach’s Art of Fugue, and ended with a warm, almost symphonic performance of Brahms’s String Quartet in C minor. Of all the ‘great’ composers, it is Brahms’s quartets that seem to be most neglected. In fact a couple of friends confessed not to know this piece: it would surprise me if this engaging performance did not change that. Their second piece was the 11th string quartet by Wolfgang Rihm. While, like most of the post-war generation (he was born in 1952), he was soon disenchanted with the Stockhausen-Boulez avant-garde, that did not, sadly, mean a turning away from complexity, extreme dissonance, inchoate, dense harmonic clusters; my notes asked: “Why is he so shy of plain, uncluttered harmonies?”. Passages of coarse bowing alternated with calm, pensive passages. And yet, on reflection at the end, I was left with feelings about its musical substance and inspiration that were not negative.

Colin Carr in Bach suites

For many the festivalhigh pointwould have been the return visit (after 2003) of British cellist Colin Carr who, to widespread incredulity, played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites in the afternoon in the Cathedral. They occupied three hours; Carr’s playing placed itself in the class of the romantics rather than of the strict tempo, even-paced, vibratoless interpreters with unvaried sound. The discursive preludes can be heard as touching the essence of each suite’s character, quite remote from any feel of warm-up exercises: a sort of microcosm of the varied movements that followed. Carr’s ease and fluency, agility and graceful decoration commanded awed attention through the entire concert. Without departing from the feeling of naturalness that was the strongest impression throughout, there were little surprises such as at the rhythmic ambiguity in the Prelude to the Third Suite, or the curiously unstable phrases of the Fourth Suite’s Courante.

In Carr’s introductory remarks he noted the way the music just got better and better till the fifth and sixth suites each of which has unusual features. The Fifth Suite calls for dropping the tuning of the A string to G and the Sixth is written for a five-string instrument (the top string being E); on a four-string cello, that calls for a lot of tortured playing high on the A string none of which seemed to tax Carr in the least.

Everything was so invested with colour and a natural fluency, not to mention increasing technical brilliance that reached a peak in the sixth suite that the cathedral-full audience rose in a standing ovation at the end.

Poulsen, Pohl and Nagy

In the evening, in a concert entitled ‘Bold Strokes’, another late 20th century piece offered a greater challenge than the Rihm had in the morning. Rihm is a good generation later than György Ligeti who undoubtedly enjoys greater fame as a leader in late 20th century music. Although it was to Stockhausen that he went after his flight fromHungaryin 1956, he ultimately rejected that brand of avant-gardism, but his own kind can be as forbidding as the most taxing of his contemporaries.

Ligeti’s Horn Trio, played by Peter Nagy, Helene Pohl and horn player Darryl Poulsen, had a particular interest here because of the discovery of sketches of its last movement that came into the hands of Helene Pohl’s father. The findings in the sketches were the subject of a pre-concert talk by Ross Harris which impressed by drawing attention to the tortured compositional process as well as its unusual difficulties both from a performance and a listening point of view. His remarks, and those later by Peter Nagy, revealed Ligeti as a man of surprisingly peevish, self-serving opinions: for example, “I hate neo-expressionism and can’t stand the neo-Mahlerian and neo-Bergian affectations, just as I can’t stand post-modern architecture.” His compositions inspire musicological writers to employ arcane musical vocabulary that is of little help even to those well-disposed to contemporary music, mistaking cleverness and originality for musical attractiveness and, well, beauty.

This work of 1982 has many facets and cannot be characterised in a few words. The first movement comprises sound sequences that are jagged and hard to follow as one tries to discover and retain patterns and their evolution; the second movement is more friendly: lighter in tone with violin pizzicato, piano staccato and hints of diatonic motifs. None was easy for the players, least of all for the horn which seemed not to have managed to ingest the lines and to reach a happy ensemble with violin and piano.

The other two pieces in the programme seemed ill-assorted: Schumann’s odd Andante and Variations, Op 46, for horn, two cellos and two pianos. The pianos (Irons and Nagy) seemed to have the best of it with cellos providing engaging sounds while the horn’s contribution seemed confined to the occasional doubling of notes.

And finally, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet from Nagy and the New Zealand String Quartet. It was a fine performance from players in complete accord with it; yet, following the astringencies of Ligeti, I found it, as attractive and filled with delight as it was, for the first time ever, strangely tepid and unadventurous. Perhaps that betrays the unacknowledged impact that the Ligeti work had actually had on me after all.

Monday: ‘Requiem’ – Shostakovich viola sonata

The early afternoon concert in the Schoolof Musicpresented another remarkable contrast: It began with a piece called Requiem by late 19th century cellist David Popper; a name known to cellists – I recall playing a short characteristic piece by him. It might be one of the few compositions to have been written to honour a composer’s publisher – originally as a concerto for three cellos and orchestra. Here, the orchestral score was reduced for piano (Emma Sayers); the cellists – Carr, Gjelsten and Katie Schlaikyer (of the Penderecki Quartet). There was little elegiac in its tone: rather, it had a meditative, pastoral quality and showed the marks of the composer/performer in its stretching of the players’ skills, though there were no signs that it presented these players with any difficulties.

If that was an essentially forgettable piece, the next was both memorable and deeply felt. The Viola Sonata, Op 147, was Shostakovich’s last composition; Gillian Ansell and Peter Nagy gave it imaginative life in a beautifully poised yet powerful performance, fulfilling Nagy’s self-directed challenge: “If we play it right, it should be a heart-breaking experience”.

Bach on Monday evening

A Bach concert has been a common element at recent festivals: the two main string quartets were engaged, plus harpsichordist Erin Helyard, flutist Bridget Douglas, bassist Ikematsu and soprano Jenny Wollerman.  They played half  dozen Two Part Inventions, the Violin Sonata, BWV1016, three arias sung by Jenny Wollerman and the Second Orchestral Suite.

The Violin Sonata was played by Penderecki Quartet’s Jeremy Bell, and Helyard. It drew attention to Bell’s striking talent for producing a wide range of tone and colour; here in the opening Adagio, he was the quintessence of baroque style, hardly any vibrato, ornaments of beautiful filigree, while in the following Allegro the violin tone seemed to have moved forward to around 1800. The third movement prompted the thought that it was hoping for an inspired melody, which seemed not quite to emerge. Not least of the delights was Helyard’s remarkably colourful harpsichord, in his role that was every bit the equal of the violin.

These concerts always offer an almost complete tasting of Bach. Jenny Wollerman sang three arias from the Cantatas – ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte’ (BWV 51), ‘Meine Seele sei vergnügt’ (BWV 204), ‘Bete aber auch dabei’ (BWV 115). Though none of them is really among the most familiar arias, all came engagingly to life from her voice that strikes me now as free, attractive and comfortable not only in the middle but also in the highest register. They were all accompanied with continuo comprising Rolf Gjelsten and Erin Helyard; the second and third arias added Bridget Douglas’s flute to weave about the voice, which here and there undertook a bit more decoration than I thought necessary.

The third element was a selection of eight Two Part Inventions that had been arranged for violin and viola (Jerzy Kaplanek and Christine Vlaik of the Penderecki Quartet). The separation of the two voices was most successful, with both players successfully turning each little piece into a charming vignette.  And finally, the two quartets, Ikematsu’s bass, Douglas’s flute, and harpsichord continuo, played the second orchestral Suite, BWV 1067); it brought such a warm response that the lively Badinerie was played again.

Tuesday to the Lake:
Penderecki Quartet at St Arnaud

The middle of the festival takes a break from Nelson: many people took the tour to LakeRotoitifor a bush walk and a concert in the little Chapel of Christ on the Lake, at Saint Arnaud. There, the Penderecki Quartet played Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op 18 No 2, Schulhoff’s Quartet No 1 of 1924, and Canadian composer Marjan Mozatich’s Lament in a Trampled Garden. None were also played back in Nelson and I regretted not being there.

Tuesday evening: Bonanza

I was compensated in the evening by a concert in the Cathedral by the trombone quartet, BonaNZa, which had performed at the last festival. Arrangements of both classical and popular music were woven into a mock opera without voices – at least without singers – that drew on The Magic Flute and Parsifal to retell the adventures of pious medieval knights attempting to recover the magic trombone whose loss had plunged their people into evil times. Act II made clever use of many of the parts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, ending with a sonorous painting of the Great Gate of Kiev.  In place of operatic arias and recitatives, oboist Peter Dykes declaimed the tale with comic and histrionic gusto.

Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day was busy.
Predictably it was devoted mainly to music by New Zealanders, and prominently to the remarkable, ground-breaking work of Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff and Hirini Melbourne in recovering and re-creating Maori instruments and the ways in which they were played, from a situation of almost total loss.

Though some moteatea have survived, for example in the famous George Grey collection of 1853, Ko Nga Moteatea, almost all knowledge of the instruments and their playing techniques had been lost; they have been scrupulously researched and recreated by Nunns and his two collaborators through archaeological and ethnological research, from drawings, written and oral accounts and a great deal of inspired, well-founded intuition as to the likely way of playing them.

At the four events there were alsoNew Zealandcompositions, most strikingly Jenny McLeod’s setting of poems in Maori.

It began at 10am in the Theatre of the SuterArtGallery. Nunns picked up and talked about and demonstrated sounds on around 40 of his remarkable collection of a hundred instruments (taonga puoro) that were arrayed on a long table. He described the evolving process of discovery and creation. At the end of the morning session Nunns induced Whirimako Black to join him in performing a waiata – a taste of the evening concert.

So in the evening in Nelson’s beautifully restored Theatre Royal, Whirimako and Richard conducted a dialogue/recital using some of the instruments and performed waiata/moteatea (songs), from Black’s Tuhoe heritage.  Several of her waiata were composed by an ancestor, Mahi Ki-Te Kapua, and associated with the Ringatu Faith. She sang, utterly without histrionics, but commanding rapt attention through her demeanour, in soft, transcendental tones. While Nunns, blowed the long trumpet-like ku in an introductory call, and then the various instruments that are breathed into, end-blown and nose flutes – putorina and koauau, trumpet-like horns such as putatara and pukaia, whirling objects – purerehua, percussion – tumutumu and the musical bow, a very elementary violin.

The audience in the Theatre Royal was entranced by the remarkable performances in a dim, mystical atmosphere that created a quasi religious experience.

Jenny McLeod’s cycle of Moteatea settings

The evening concert began at 6.30pm to allow space for the 9pm session with Nunns and Black. It began with six Mendelssohn Songs without Words and ended with Schubert’s Trio In E flat.

However, the main item in the programme was He Whakaahua a Maru, a 15-song cycle of waiata set by Jenny McLeod, The poems were written in Maori (by the composer) and their musical setting by a composer with a lifetime of immersion in Maori language and culture. Only two were from Grey’s Nga Moteatea, the rest were poems by McLeod herself based on ideas drawn from Mike Nicolaidi’s book A Greekish Trinity.  Soprano Jenny Wollerman, who had earlier sung arias from Bach cantatas, sang them with powerful conviction, accompanied by pianist Emma Sayers and flutist Karen Batten, both of whom occasionally contributed percussive effects with a poi.

Drawing on childhood experiences – intimate, violent and tender, domestic events and emotions – from at least two widely disparate cultures, planted in another soil in another language and taking on the taste and feel of the latter.

I found the first songs uncomfortably violent, but the tenor of the later ones was mainly domestic, more intimate and the sense of an authentic Maori idiom grew stronger as the work unfolded. It seemed as near to the idiom of the waiata we were to hear later from Whirimako Black as any composer of today, of any culture, is likely to create.

Wollerman and her two colleagues displayed, through long affinity with Maori music and its performance, a sympathy and understanding that is probably unsurpassed. Wollerman’s voice is in excellent shape and seems more than ever to be an idiomatic vehicle for the expression of the violent as well as the tender emotions called up in this sequence.

As the sequence drew to a close I began to be aware that here was a very major work that perhaps in spite of, or because of, its mixed cultural origins, might justifiably be considered something of a masterpiece (a word, I notice, that was also used by Ruth Allison in her excellent review in the Nelson Mail).

It is a singular statement, among other things, about the universality of art, as opposed to race-based claims to ownership. If this music takes root in the memory, it could prove a masterpiece.

Plus Mendelssoh and Schubert

Rather overshadowed by the McLeod song cycle, the early evening concert also included six of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and Schubert’s Trio in E flat. It offered a respite (is that an OK word?) fromNew Zealand music.

The Songs without Words were played exquisitely by Peter Nagy, raising them from their common perception as somewhat slight salon pieces. In the second half Schubert’s Trio, D 929 was played by Nagy, Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten, with affection and marvellous finesse though, as so often in Schubert, the job of keeping fresh what I, heathen-like, sometimes feel as endless repetition of the main tunes somewhat eluded them; as it commonly does.

Ritchie, Harris, Psathas in one concert

There were two other concerts on Waitangi Day.

In the early afternoon the Penderecki Quartet played John Ritchie’s String Quartet, mainly written in the 1960s; but the last movement, after his wife’s death in 2001, lent an elegiac, though not despairing, character to the earlier autobiographical movements; the performance, in the composer’s presence, was sympathetic and expressive, leaving a sense of a life that still looked forward to satisfying activities and rewards.

Ross Harris’s Fifth String Quartet, ‘Songs from Childhood’, and played by the New Zealand String Quartet, proved surprisingly gritty, with little of the expected, beguiling, childhood reflections. Though it was an impressive example of Harris’s imaginative virtuosity in use of instruments, some at the outer fringes of their capacities and range, I found at this first hearing a lack of engagement, on my part, with the music.

Finally, the New Zealand Trio (NZTrio) (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins) arrived to play John Psathas’s Helix, which the group had commissioned in 2006, now established as one of Psathas’s best known works, dynamically restrained, melodically vigorous. The trio have clearly had plenty of opportunity to find and maximise all the colour, excitement and ethnic character that inspired it. Here, extremes of instrumental register meant enhanced emotional impact and an exhilaration grew over the course of its three movements.  The NZTrio revels in music of this kind, and the audience responded warmly to their enthusiasm.

Thursday: Penderecki Quartet with Rachmaninov and Bartók

Thursday morning offered a few hours of rest till the 2pm concert which brought us back to the European mainstream. The two concerts of the day proved a minor celebration of Rachmaninov and Bartók, two close contemporaries though far apart stylistically and emotionally. The 2pm concert, from the Penderecki Quartet, began with a rarity – a student exercise by Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory: two movements of a string quartet. It opened with muted strings, meditative, bearing hints of Tchaikovsky; the second movement caught a different mood, neither particularly Rachmaninov nor Tchaikovsky, but an elegant though energetic palm court-like Scherzo second movement with a slower waltz time part in the middle.

The quartet next played Wolf’s Italian Serenade, bows sprightly dancing on strings, exuding southern warmth and a feminine lyricism that bears obvious kinship with Wolf’s elusive, short-breathed songs.

Neither the Rachmaninov nor the Wolf provided a connection with or preparation for Bartók’s Fifth Quartet which perhaps comes as a genial surprise after the tougher language of the third and fourth quartets. Even so, there are passages where I found myself asking, ‘why does the composer need to/want to express so much aggression or anger?’, though that quality is not as marked as it is in the sixth. Bartók was acutely alive to political affairs but as far as I know 1934 did not present anything particularly nasty forHungary, under Horthy’s two decades of relatively moderate fascism, apart from the advent of Hitler coming to power the year before, alarming the whole world to varying degrees.

Carr’s second tour de force was a passionate playing of Rachmaninov’s sonata, with Diedre Irons, on Thursday evening, which again brought the audience to its feet. It’s a piece that makes one lament that the composer was not urged to write more chamber music and that other comparably gifted composers did not have the fortitude to withstand the pressure to avoid melody, tonality and emotion. The two musicians seemed to have reached a singular rapport in their approach to the undulating dynamics and rhythms, and the instincts that guided them in building and releasing tension around climaxes. The cello could retreat to offering the most subtle and casual gestures below the piano, suggesting a degree of spontaneity that must have been carefully considered but sounded improvisatory.

The sonata was preceded by Bartók’s first Rhapsody of violin and piano, from Douglas Beilman and Peter Nagy. Nagy amused the audience by describing and playing a recording of the first performance by a Gypsy-inspired violinist, challenging Beilman to emulate it. He did very well, capturing the romantic spirit of the first movement and then the strong rhythms against a somewhat restrained overall performance.

As if the Cello Sonata was not emotional highlight enough, the players – theNew ZealandString Quartet and Colin Carr – then played Schubert’s String Quintet in C, among his last works. This was a performance made in heaven; the outer movements built an edifice based on all the warmth and sonority and here and there, the athleticism of the brave, optimistic tone that masks the tragic resignation that finds such powerful expression in the Andante.

I don’t much like focusing on individual players in chamber music, but Carr’s cello is very much a solo instrument and there were several times when its opulent sound rose a little above the others.

But altogether, this was one of the richest and most satisfying concerts in the festival.

Café music

In an early afternoon concert on Friday, the NZTrio who had arrived for Wednesday’s Waitangi Day concert, played Debussy’s very early Piano Trio, Gareth Farr’s alternately peacefully beautiful and energetic Ahi,; as well as and Paul Schoenfield’s attractive Café Music.  The Debussy was understandably unfamiliar as it might have been written by any gifted Paris Conservatoire student exposed to the influences of Massenet and Saint-Saëns.  It is probably improper to remark that there could even have been a whiff of English palm court music with its pleasant, slightly kitschy melodies and traditional harmonies. ‘

Farr’s Ahi represented a departure from the Asian and Pacific influences of much of his earlier music though gamelan sounds are present in the last movement. Its four movements follow the classical pattern, alternating fast and slow, in tones that are nevertheless original and which have attracted many performances over the fifteen years since the Ogen Trio commissioned it.

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, a good example of well conceived music that uses popular idioms and accents, serving to challenge fixed notions of what is popular/ephemeral and what is serious/classical. It explored several genres with wit and skill, and the trio played it all with great flair. The audience responded with delight at the end of the impetuous ragtime-inspired last movement that pianist Sarah Watkins rather dominated with thrilling rhythmic energy.

“Kreutzer” in disguise and a Brahms Sextet

The Friday evening concert, in the Cathedral, was another heterogeneous programme such as the festival seemed to take pleasure in. As well as some pieces for Martin Jaenecke’s soprano saxophone, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Violin Sonata came in an arrangement for string quintet. It was the work of Sikorski in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death and followed the same instrumentation as the Schubert Quintet, The formation, with two cellos, creates a marvellously rich sound base, giving it a head start over other possible combinations. The players, Beilman, Pohl, Vlijk (of the Penderecki Quartet), Gjelsten and Carr, carried it off with wonderful commitment and an obvious belief in its integrity; though there were passages in which I could not call to mind the equivalent piano part, I’m sure no liberties were taken with the notation.

Such ventures are risky, but this one was so sensitively rescored and so beautifully played that it came off brilliantly, seeming to me worthy of taking its place as a serious alternative version in the regular repertoire.

The concert had opened however with a duet for soprano saxophone and viola by Edward Ware, a graduate of the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music, now living inAmerica. It was played by Martin and Victoria Jaenecke, previously Nelson residents; their two instruments (was it composed for them?), and the performance itself, created a most attractive blending, through three contrasting movements. It had the virtue of unpretentiousness, having been written for the enjoyment of music lovers seeking melodic music that can be followed, has an emotional quality, yet sufficiently teases the listener’s sensibilities.

Martin Jaenecke returned later to play a Song without Words by Sofia Gubaidulina, for saxophone and organ (Richard Apperley). The sound and the musical content was curious but enchanting.

It was followed by a rather similar piece – a Meditation – by Jaenecke himself. It was more decorative than the Gubaidulina, making use of the cathedral’s acoustic, as he turned round this way and that so the sound changed its character, intensity, direction; and the organ too selected stops than echoed or complemented the fluctuating tones of the saxophone.  I found both pieces attractive, not least by the organ’s contribution, and they made me wonder whether, with a fine organist like Apperley in town, the festival should be making use of the cathedral’s organ for the odd solo recital: I’m sure I’m not alone as a lover of chamber music who also enjoys the organ.

A second major repertoire piece followed, to end the concert: the first and best loved of Brahms’s two string sextets. This time it was the turn of the Penderecki Quartet, with second viola and cello from the New Zealand Quartet.  Sadly, the larger string groups – sextets, septets and so on – are rarities in the normal concert series and it is one of the delights of a festival such as this to hear them in live performance.

The two works by Brahms have a special beauty as they seem to offer the composer a chance that he can richly endow with opulent harmony: I remember reading somewhere that when Haydn was asked why he stuck to the string quartet (in contrast to Boccherini who wrote hundreds of quintets), he said he could not find a fifth voice: in other words, four fulfilled all his needs.

In any case, Brahms had no difficulty and every movement seems to delight in the opportunity to expand the most gorgeous melodies. And as in earlier pieces for large groups, the mix of players seemed to create an air of delight that scarcely occurred with smaller ensembles. One after another, individual players took solos that gave them brief moments of rapture.

Saturday: New Zealand Guitar Quartet

The 1pm concert was the first visit to the festival by a guitar quartet, the New Zealand Guitar Quartet which consists of leader Owen Moriarty, Jane Currie who teaches at the New Zealand School of Music, Tim Watanabe and Christopher Hill.  The programme was similar to that played last October at Old Saint Paul’s and reviewed by my colleague Peter Mechen.

The first piece, Quiccan; by Andrew York, a leading American guitarist and composer and long-time member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, revealed the highly sophisticated writing the wide tonal capacities of the group, from muted softness to boisterous energy, reflecting jazz and Latin American music, and the interesting quasi-orchestral effects obtained in ensemble.

They dropped one advertised piece, Sergio Assad’s Uarekena, and replaced it with John Rimmer’s Nelsonian Riffs, his first guitar composition, tonally traditional, and lying nicely for the ensemble. That was followed by Wellington composer Craig Utting’s Onslow Suite, originally for three players at two pianos, began in extrovert fashion hinting at a baroque influence, and became more reticent in its second part.

One of Owen Moriarty’s guitars was a seven-string instrument – the seventh string set below the normal bottom E: I think, B. The use of that string enhanced the sonority of the whole ensemble.

After these pieces, written for these instruments, it was curious to find the arrangement of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto somewhat uninteresting, something of the organic fluidity and nuance seemed overcome by playing that was a little mechanical, though lively enough and with excellent ensemble. Here, and elsewhere, it was interesting that applause broke out whenever the music paused between sections or movements: not a serious matter but a commentary on audience attention to the players remarks or the nature and shape of the music.

That said, the players who spoke about the music, introduced a genial and sociable tone to the concert.  But they did not properly gauge the size of the concert room, speak slowly and clearly enough, and project their voices.  They are not alone among musicians in feeling that it is enough to speak in a casual, idiomatic way; that is certainly harder for foreigners, and even New Zealanders, to follow.

Ian Krouse was a colleague of some of the quartet members at the Universityof Southern California. I don’t recall hearing his Antique Suite before, based partially on a composition by Renaissance composer Hans Neusidler, but which Krouse has ‘made his own’ in the words of the programme.  Owen Moriarty described it as lute music on steroids. The suite was in four movements, given titles that I take to be from the original old German. Admirably written for the quartet, a hurdy-gurdy character was introduced by the use of a bow across all the strings of Tim Watanabe’s guitar, and its movements were enlivened with a variety of styles and instrumental effects that took the music far from its Renaissance origins.

The concert ended with two of the dances from Falla’s ballet El amor brujo – ‘Danza del terror’ and ‘Danza ritualdel fuego’. Taken quite out of their original orchestral environment, these performances did them full justice.

Grand Finale

There was a symbolic element in the choice of programme for the final concert: a New Zealandand a Canadian piece (coincidentally or deliberately(?) , both by Greek-born composers), set among two masterpieces of the normal repertoire.

The New Zealandwork was Abisheka by John Psathas (played by the New Zealanders); the Canadian, a String Quartet by Christos Hatzis, born inGreece (played by the Canadians).  Psathas’s piece is well established in the New Zealand canon: it emerges from silence with the solo first violin and gathers itself into a dense bed of inchoate sound, but slowly clarifies to allow individual their place to speak. The players have gained a familiarity  with it by now that gives it the character of a standard classic.

Hatzis’s quartet was a more formal, four movement work, though with a programmatic basis – the bombing ofBelgradeduring the 1990s wars. Balkan characteristics can be heard throughout, but also Latin, Middle Eastern and perhaps Indian elements; violent, disturbing passages are balanced by lighter, more peaceful, optimistic episodes. It was obviously an important work for the Penderecki Quartet and their playing showed the result of careful preparation and a deep understanding of both the musical and the programmatic sources. Most notable perhaps was the ferocious energy that Jeremy Bell, the quartet’s leader, produced throughout the four contrasting movements.

In the first half the New Zealand String Quartet plus Penderecki viola and cello, played the Sextet that forms the prelude to Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, written during the Second World War. In some way it was an attempt to ignore the pain inflicted by the war and it was a deeply satisfying performance, again made the more intense through the sharing of parts among the two groups.

And finally, the Mendelssohn Octet, which has been played in earlier festivals to celebrate the combined work of two splendid quartets. From the very opening, the marvellous variety of colour and enjoyment of the sheer youthful high spirits that embody the piece could not have been more delightfully captured.


In addition to the formal concerts, there were on most days, masterclasses, workshops, concerts in the city by the local Troubadour Quartet, a Pro-Am concert at which a local quartet, coached by members of the professional ensembles, performed, and the regular Kids’ Concert taken by Bob Bickerton.

It must be emphasised that the festival remains what it is through the commitment of the New Zealand String Quartet and the Adam Foundation and a few other sponsors, plus a number of dedicated people in Nelson. To look at the way summer festivals have become such major elements in Europe is to see the scope for this festival and, one keeps hoping, others dedicated to good music, to flourish inNew Zealand. So far, there has been no emulation of Nelson though the international music competitions such as at Gisborne and Kerikeri look ripe for expansion into more extensive music festivals.

Further to the review of Lewis’s Winterreise in Nelson: surtitles

My review of the recital at Nelson at which Keith Lewis and Michael Houstoun performed Schubert’s Winterreise had overlooked what I felt at the time to be a major innovation: the use of surtitles. I have now inserted the following paragraphs in my review of 9 February.

“First, I should note an innovation that sets an admirable precedent for voice recitals: the projection of surtitles. Occasional whines are still heard about them in the opera house though I have been a wholehearted supporter from their first appearance in the late 80s. If there are plausible objections to their use in opera, however, there can be none in the recital. The decision was made to not include the words or translations in the programme, to avoid the interrupting rustle of collective page turning and the dispiriting vision, for the artists, of audience heads down during the performance. In recital, eyes do not need to be constantly on the stage watching movements, gestures, expressions; nothing is lost by raising the eyes to read the words. And the surtitle screen was of ideal size, allowing easy reading of full translations in images that were very clear.

“At the end of the concert booklets containing full German and English texts were distributed. The whole process was handled with great care and thoughtfulness.”

Climactic finale to a splendid festival

Adam Chamber Music Festival: Grand Finale


New Zealand String Quartet, Alexander Zemstov (viola) and Leonid Gorokhov (cello) of the Hermitage String Trio, Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass), James Campbell (clarinet), Edward Allen (horn), Robert Weeks (bassoon)


Beethoven: Duet in E flat (‘Eyeglass’), WoO 32; Vieuxtemps: Capriccio in C minor for solo viola; Weber: Clarinet Quintet in B flat, Op 44; Schubert: Octet in E, D 803


Nelson Cathedral, Saturday 12 February 7.30pm


The last concert in this compressed festival brought most of the players in the two string ensembles together plus other prominent soloists. It was an odd-looking programme, but anything goes at a farewell party, and this certainly did that.


The Beethoven duet was an unpublished piece, unfinished, in only two movements, but a highly entertaining one. The players were from the Hermitage Trio who may well have made it something of a trademark, such was their conspicuous flair with it. Written for a patron, an amateur cellist, with whom Beethoven (a violist) had a particularly jocular relationship; presumably for them to play together. So it is a delightful piece, playful, witty and rather lovely in its melodies and the spirit of friendship which is not hard to discern. Needless to say, the performance was brilliant, witty as far as music can be witty, and immaculate.


Gillian Ansell got a solo slot in the last concert, playing a rarity by great Belgian violinist Vieuxtemps. Tuneful and quite challenging, it offered a good opportunity to hear the fine violist of the New Zealand String Quartet on her own; she proved a most worthy candidate for such exposure.


James Campbell also had another chance to play. As chamber music Weber’s clarinet quintet hardly meets some of the tests, for it is a rather shameless show-piece for the instrument and the four strings (the NZSQ) merely accompany as if in a very routine classical period concerto. Campbell made the most of its beauties and its brilliant writing however to produce an extremely entertaining performance.


Finally, the piece for which all this had really been merely a curtain raiser: Schubert’s Octet. It’s one of those pieces the needs an unusual variety of musicians: a string quartet, a double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This time it was an entirely New Zealand affair apart from the clarinet, never mind that almost all the others were foreign-born New Zealanders.


And so it proved an extremely lively, immaculate performance, a first movement setting out confidently with an air of high expectancy, as if on a big journey. There was something about the spirit of the playing that seemed to announce the size and range of this unique masterpiece right from the start, which would have made it hard to imagine its stopping for example at the end of the fourth movement, which would not be improbable given its extensive theme and variations form. The soul of the piece might well be the Adagio second movement which expressed a marvelous relaxation, fielded a blend of strings and wind instruments that was rapturous in the rich and voluptuous blend. That fourth movement offered lovely opportunities for all the players, exceeding expectations of mere perfection, in ever-changing combinations and solo episodes through the way Schubert uses the variations pattern. The last movement began with foreboding tremolos and steady-paced mystical passages before upping the tempo for the coda that seemed unable to bring itself to an end. Few in the audience would have been hoping for that for it also meant the end of the festival; there was a long, rowdy ovation for this performance and for the festival as a whole. 


It had been a festival made more full-on for the audiences who in a few days could have heard more music than previously, but imposed greater demands, with less leisure time, on the players. I hope the effect of that does not discourage visiting musicians in the future from what has become quite famous as a time of bacchanalian relaxation as well as companionable music making. 


It had been a wonderful festival. 

Last day at Nelson. Bickerton with kids and Riseley with Paganini

Adam Chamber Music Festival. Saturday Music at Nelson. Bob Bickerton with Kid’s Concert; Riseley plays Paganini Caprices

Nelson School of Music and St John’s church


Saturday 12 February 10am and 1pm


Bob Bickerton is a multi-talented musician, a composer as well as a versatile, gifted performer on many instruments, he has been heavily involved in bringing music to children and young people over the past couple of decades. I went along to see him in action on Saturday morning. He and his boxes of instruments were on the stage while his audience was on the tiers of seats behind the stage.  


Naturally, he has an engaging personality, likely to catch and hold children’s attention. And he did – most of the time; though in spite of what I thought were entertaining anecdotes and observations, quite a few of the children were inattentive. Might one suppose that the floods of highly coloured, endlessly energetic, violent, visually exciting stuff on television and DVDs has so inured them to ordinary people telling them things without high-speed histrionics, that it fails to engage them.


Bickerton began by demonstrating how blown instruments produce their sounds, starting with a milk bottle and progressing to pipes and flutes and reeds; then the effects of causing taut strings to vibrate when plucked or stroked with horse hair. Then he played examples of music from various countires, on various instruments, with humour and considerable skill.  


I would be surprised if a higher proportion of children than of adults become really engrossed by music. Nevertheless, I’m sure that in

the climate in which most children find themselves today, it is easier for most to escape any real exposure to ‘good’ music than ever before. As with many things, most significantly languages and poetry, unless minds and memories are furnished with music by adolescence, it might escape them altogether.


Paganini Caprices Op 1
Martin Riseley played the entire 24 of Paganini’s Caprices at 1pm. Always a formidable task, this was a very considerable feat. He had decided to take his time with them by pausing for applause after each and by talking briefly about each beforehand, and he took short breaks after each six. This probably added fifteen or twenty minutes to the recital. There were a few departures after the halfway mark.


It is easy to hear them as mere displays of bravura and party tricks. But in reality the tricks are modest and limited in comparison to the hair-raising stunts that became common later in the 19th century. It’s not profound and soul-searing music such as might be found in the Bach solo sonatas and partitas, but I believe that if you listen open-eared without letting comparisons with his contemporaries like Beethoven or Weber, Schubert or Rossini distract you, there is musical substance and an inventive musical mind that has created interesting and enjoyable music. Some do seem somewhat empty, but far more seem to have considerable merit, such as numbers 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 18 and 24 of course.


His performances were not flawless, but it was an enjoyable if unnecessarily long recital of one of the more uncommon chefs d’oeuvres in the violin literature.