Earthly and Heavenly Delights from the Historical Arts Trust


Earthly Delight, Heavenly Respite

The Historical Arts Trust


Pepe Becker (soprano)

Gregory Squire (baroque violin) / Katrin Eickhorst-Squire (baroque ‘cello) / Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

St. Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Saturday 2nd July 2011

Formed in 2010, the Historical Arts Trust was set up by a group of enthusiasts involved in the disciplines of early music, theatre and dance, in order to promote interest in Medieval, Renaissance and baroque music, dance and drama in New Zealand. The aim of the Trust is to present concerts and other events such as workshops and demonstrations which showcase these highly distinctive eras, and will encourage wider awareness and involvement on the part of performers and audiences.

Dimitrios Theodoridis, well-known as a versatile singer with period vocal groups, was appointed the Trust’s first Executive Director, and was instrumental in co-ordinating the group’s first workshop, in April 2011, taken with students from both St.Patrick’s and St.Catherine’s Colleges here in Wellington, and featuring also the talents of musicians Robert Oliver, Brendan O’Donnell and Stephen Pickett. The students were able to experience the authentic sounds of renaissance music and its performance, and discuss what they heard with the musicians.

The group’s first concert, Risurrezione, which took place in May,  got the series, “La Musica”, off to an exciting beginning with the music of Biber, JS Bach and Buxtehyde. The considerable instrumental skills of Gregory Squire, Douglas Mews and Robert Oliver each played a vital part supporting the glorious singing of soprano Pepe Becker and bass David Morriss. It all promised well for the events to follow, and special interest accompanied the first of these, which featured two of the Baroque era’s most spectacular composer/performers, Arcangelo Corelli and Georg Friedrich Handel.

Stories of the rivalry between the two composers, arising from their encounters in Rome, have gone into the realms of musical legend, the most well-known one being Handel’s deliberate placement of a high E in a sonata of his that Corelli was due to perform, after the latter had avowed never to write – or perform – such a note. Despite the resulting stand-off causing a never-to-be-healed breach between the two composers, Handel wasn’t slow to recognize the popular appeal of the “Italian style” and thus adopt his own potent realization of it in his own works. The concert thus gave us a chance to further the “cheek-by-jowl” interaction of the two composers’ music, albeit playing to different respective creative “strengths”, Corelli’s with some of his instrumental sonatas, and Handel with his famous set of German Arias for soprano.

How eloquently the instrumentalists stirred the silences into life with the opening of the first of Corelli’s Op.5 Violin Sonatas! – the Grave opening marvellously punctuated by energized irruptions, the tones held and savored by the church’s grateful ambience. Greg Squire’s violin confidently led the dance, while Katrin Eickhorst-Squire’s ‘cello seemed a more “contained” though always reliable consort. In attendance, too was Douglas Mews’ ever-tasteful continuo, finding a just balance between expression and discretion in support of the violin. For a time, the combination jelled more consistently in the slower movements, during which the instrumentalists conjured up exquisitely-voiced and -balanced sounds; whereas the allegros found the string-playing a touch off-centre in intonation and more wispy in tone than was ideal – as the evening progressed, so did the playing focus more truly and consistently.

Interspersed throughout the concert with Handel’s seven German Arias we heard two further instrumental sonatas from Corelli’s Op.5 – No.9 in A Major made a nice contrast with its secular dance movements as opposed to the opening work’s more formal “churchy’ structure, longish slow movements set against virtuosic allegros and fugues. Particularly noteworthy (excuse the pun) was the performance of the Gavotte from this sonata, decorated busily with running passagework that kept the players on their toes, although the playing never lost sight of the underlying dance rhythms, the ‘cello and harpsichord working as hard as Gregory Squire’s violin throughout this work.

Fittingly, the most famous of the Op. 5 set was also represented, the D Minor Sonata No.12 being a theme and variations on the well-known La Follia. This was a glittering display of music-making form all concerned, very exciting and physical in effect, with the ‘cello given as much to do, it seemed, as the violin. Corelli’s inventiveness seemed unflagging, including many unpredictable and volatile moments, a world of ebb and flow that these performers took unto themselves without hesitation – though the playing wasn’t absolutely note-perfect, it was the energy and drive of the virtuoso irruptions set against the more poised and dignified episodes that triumphantly carried the listener’s attention throughout.

It made excellent musical sense to ring the changes between instrumental and vocal items throughout the evening. Pepe Becker was in her usual fine vocal fettle, though I couldn’t help thinking that, on this showing, her voice seemed in places somehow less comfortable with this repertoire than with the Renaissance and earlier Baroque works we’d recently heard her perform so magnificently. It’s a voice that floats and fills out melismatic contouring with the utmost beauty, of the kind that abounds in more florid music than this – here, in Handel’s more tightly-conceived figurations I noticed a blurring of the coloratura lines exacerbated by the ample acoustic which took away some of the music’s clarity in quicker passages as well as most of the singer’s consonants! Having said this, Becker made some lovely sounds, the opening Süsse Stille particularly successful, especially in the voice’s combination with the instruments. Apart from some sightly uncomfortable intonation at the end of the the aria’s middle section, the following Singe, Seele, Gott sum Preise just as successfully conveyed the music’s essence, energetic and joyful.

In the next bracket of two arias, Flammende Rose was beautifully shaped by the performers, the structure most satisfyingly “built up” by the composer,and rendered here with appropriately sonorous singing and playing. I thought the opening of Künft’ger Zeiten either Kummer (Vain care of times to come) with its low tessitura difficult for the soprano voice, but the succeeding episode featured some exquisite work, with beautifully-held notes from the singer. Two further arias immediately after the interval featured, firstly, Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken (Ambrosial petal of sweet flowers), the singer making up for somewhat blurred articulation throughout by some shining, stratospheric decoration of the penultimate line “I will soar Heavenward and sing praises”, followed by an oddly sombre and agitated setting of In dem Angenehmen Büschenand (In the pleasant thickets), the music sounding more disturbed than tranquil, with an undertow of unrest even through the more settled tones of “Dann erhebt sich in der Brust” (Then in my breast my contented spirit).

Fortunately, the concluding aria Meine Seele made amends, Becker’s voice taking to its exaltations with buoyancy and openness – a lovely, more circumspect moment at “Horen nur, Hark!” placing Creation’s delight in a more thoughtful, metaphysical context, before returning to the leaping joy of “Alles jauchzet, alles lacht” at the end. Delight in the music,in the singing and playing, and in the beauties of the venue (despite the slightly over-generous ambience already alluded to) gave this concert the kind of distinction which did the Historical Arts Trust’s purposes full justice.

Soprano recital with baroque oboe: Rowena Simpson and Samantha Owens

Works by LEGNANI, D.SCARLATTI, HANDEL (arr. Babell) and KUSSER

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Samantha Owens (baroque oboe), Emma Goodbehere (‘cello), Douglas Mews (Harpsichord)

St. Andrew’s on the Terrace

Wednesday 18th February

A most engaging programme, this, mellifluous and varied, and expertly performed by soprano Rowena Simpson, with her instrumental partner, baroque oboist Samantha Owens, and their sterling continuo duo cohorts, Emma Goodbehere (‘cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord). I had not previously heard a note of music written by either Angelo Domenico Legnani (1663-1700), or Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660-1727) – or “Cousser” as he was known in France., so the concert was an education for me as well as a delight. Legnani’s Cantata “Chi sa dove e la speranza” is a setting of a highly over-wrought text concerned with love, despair and grief, which the music and the performance illuminated with spirit and skill.

Rowena Simpson’s light but agile soprano gained in strength and confidence as episode followed episode, with florid runs capped by pinging top notes, and with Samantha Owens’ beguilingly-voiced oboe complementing the singer with both shared and contrapuntal lines. Not every turn of phrase was wholly accurate in pitch but the spirit of the music was wonderfully stirred and shaken throughout., the continuo of Emma Goodbehere’s ‘cello and Douglas Mews’ keyboard providing admirable support.

Douglas Mews then gave us the well-known “Cat’s Fugue” by Domenico Scarlatti, giving us a short illustrated explanation of the title before playing the work proper, which both entertained and enlightened his audience. This was a cat whose keyboard figurations gave a sense of the animal hardly being able to believe its own ears at the sounds, whose stepwise progressions then developed into wonderfully labyrinthine complexities before finding their way through to the end once again – a nice performance.

William Babell’s “arrangements” of opera arias and overtures were represented by a transcription of an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo – uncommonly civilised keyboard sounds, working up a bit of energetic contrast in a middle section, but ultimately confirming Charles Burney’s verdict that Babell’s arrangements “astonished ignorance…at small expense” – still, Douglas Mews enjoyed himself thoroughly and delighted us accordingly.

My education was advanced further by hearing Johann Sisimund Kusser’s music, a selection of arias from an opera Ariadne, dealing with the well-known story of the daughter of King Minos of Crete and her lover Theseus, the Athenian prince who overcame the monstrous Minotaur in the labyrinth. The music’s considerable demands enabled Rowena Simpson to demonstrate her skills as a singer developed during nine years of study and performance based in The Hague Royal Conservatoire, and various engagements throughout Europe.

Kusser’s vocal writing demands considerable flexibility and agility, with frequent treacherous leaps and large reserves of breath, and both singer and oboist were up to negotiating nearly all the music’s requirements without mishap, even if some of the awkward intervals proved difficult to properly “pitch”. Emma Goodbehere played a ‘cello transcription of one of the arias with Samantha Owens, ‘cello and oboe dancing nicely together, fleet-of foot and bright-eyed.

A smallish audience was captivated by the music and its performance, and saluted the performers at the concert’s conclusion with great enthusiasm – a promising beginning to what appears to be a year’s thoroughly worthwhile music-making at St. Andrew’s.