Popular and enterprising fare from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Caitlin Morris (‘cello)
Andrew Aitkins (conductor)

KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978) – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the Ballet “Spartacus”
DVORAK )1841-1904) – Vodnik (The Water Goblin) Op.107
TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)  – Capriccio Italien Op.45
ELGAR (1857-1934) – ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor  Op.85

St.Andrew’s 0n-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 24th September, 2022

This attractive assemblage of pieces which made up the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s latest concert presented a colourful, spirited and enterprising programme, combining what one might describe as a clutch of “popular” classics with one piece definitely off the beaten track.

The popular pieces have somewhat different claims to fame, the Khachaturian piece featuring as the theme music for a popular television series within living memory, “The Onedin Line”, the music’s soaring, swooping theme tune evoking sailing ships and their transcontinental voyages – in the composer’s original ballet, set in Roman times, this same music depicted the love between Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, a pair of Thracian slaves captured by Roman forces.

Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, sketched out during its composer’s stay in Rome during 1880, uses a combination of music he heard in the streets and various folk songs. After completing his sketches he confidently remarked in a letter to a friend that “a good fortune may be predicted” for the piece, an assertion which has, over the years triumphantly proved correct, which opinion wasn’t always his feeling about many a far greater work he’d written and over which he often had serious doubts.

Finally on the concert’s “well-known front” came the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto, a piece whose popularity has been hard-won over earlier years, right from its first performances both in Britain in 1919 and the USA in 1922. The premiere of the work was practically sabotaged by the conductor’s neglect of the piece in rehearsal, to the point where a contemporary critic wrote in a review of the performance  “Never has so great an orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra!) made so lamentable an exhibition of itself!”. To make matters worse, after the American premiere two years later a critic wrote “It is a long work (!) and it ambles on and on, utterly without distinction, utterly without inspiration”…..

It really wasn’t until ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pre took up the work firstly at the BBC Proms with Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1963, and then via a classic recording with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965 (which became, in the lingo of the times, a “best-seller”), that the work began to convey its true quality and status in more widespread terms, which of course continues today with a new generation of ‘cellists.

The “odd one out” in this concert was definitely the Dvorak tone-poem Vodnik (The Water Goblin), one of several tone-poems completed by the composer AFTER he had written his Ninth and most famous symphony, the “New World”. Unlike with the symphonies, which he’d composed along the lines of the classical masters, Dvorak turned to the example of Franz Liszt who had first developed this new form of composition, and was from the beginning harshly criticised by conservative musicians and critics who, despite Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, disapproved of “programme” music.  Dvorak obviously wanted to explore and celebrate a native Czech spirit more freely with these works, which still today lag far behind his symphonies and overtures in popularity, though they are now receiving more notice, as in this present concert with “Vodnik” (The Water Goblin), the earliest of the composer’s ventures into this new territory.

Flanking the Dvorak in the first half were, firstly, the Khachaturian Adagio, and then Tchaikovsky’s rumbustious Italian picture-postcards, each a perfect foil for what followed. The Khachaturian was gloriously played here, the opening dominated by a splendidly-phrased oboe solo from Rod Ford, thereafter handing the theme over to the strings for further lyrical expansion, conductor Andrew Atkins getting his players to vary their phrasings and intensities most beguilingly. Sterner brass and intensely-wrought wind solos took the music through irruptions of excitement and expectation before the entire orchestra gave the music unashamed Hollywood treatment, building to a most impressive climax that was thrilling in its cumulative impact. And how gracefully did the winds, the horns and the harp bring about the piece’s dying fall, with Paula Carryer’s solo violin having the last eloquent word – most satisfyingly done.

At the half’s other end was the ceremonial splendour and contrasting rumbustiousness of a piece once popular but seldom played in concert these days – Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, a work I first encountered on 78rpm acetate discs (a precious memory) and which I still love to bits! Those brass calls at the start had here a proper spine-tingling effect, to which the different timbres of horns and heavy brasses added thrilling weight, though a couple of the accompanying “ra-ta-ta-plan” figures accompanying the strings’ sombre, but expressively shaped melody were too eagerly raced by the players. I thought the oboe-led winds took the music back most excitingly to the reiteration of the opening brass calls, if rather more tentative this time round. Some more “ra-ta-ta-plans” then led to a melody that’s one of the world’s charmers, played winningly by the winds, then the strings, and building up to a most satisfying irruption of festive sounds.  Away from this sprang the next section, lively, if none too tidily at first but with the performance recovering its poise sufficiently to make a scintillating impression with the concluding tarantella, everything breathlessly exciting!

In between these pieces was the Dvorak tone-poem, its relatively unfamiliar strains most strikingly and impressively brought into being at the outset, with the orchestral winds’ mischievous, spiky rhythms gradually becoming more macabre and frenzied as the eponymous Water Goblin danced along the lakeside in anticipation of capturing a human girl for a bride. Throughout, Atkins and his players vividly and tellingly contrasted Dvorak’s colourful depictions of the story’s grotesqueries with the simple natural beauty of the countryside and of the young girl, whose piteous abduction by the Goblin here occasioned particularly affecting playing from strings (violas) and winds as she lamented her fate. I thought conductor and players did terrific work making sense of Dvorak’s sometimes in places obsessive detailings, particularly throughout the sequences representing the girl’s captivity, the birth of her child, her pleading with her Goblin-husband to be allowed to visit her mother again (he will not let her take the child) and their reunitement. The final scene in which the spirit-husband impatiently comes to fetch his wife home again is fraught with all the tension, cruelty and ultimate horror characteristic of these Czech stories, which the composer knew as verse ballades written by the nationalistic poet Karel Jaromir Ereben. Atkins and his players again gave their all, demonstrating astonishing  commitment to making the composer’s somewhat unwieldy structure work its full dramatic and colourful effect!

After the interval came, for me, the concert’s second piece de resistance, a performance by Caitlin Morris of the much-loved Elgar ‘Cello Concerto. Being of the generation which had listened open-mouthed to Jacqueline du Pre’s “revival” of the work in the 1960s, and thus still having her interpretation well-nigh “imprinted” on my consciousness, I was delighted to witness a younger player’s performance that seemed to take what she needed from du Pre’s intensely poetic vision of the work but bring to it very much her own brand of intensity and poetry, and a technique capable of realising those goals with real verve and brilliance. Right from the opening recitative,  Morris commanded our attention, making the music very much her own and “drawing in” her fellow-players and listeners alike to a world opened up by the music’s unashamedly heart-on-sleeve outpourings.

Atkins and his players seemed at one with her throughout, matching her expressiveness at all points, with only a couple of orchestral interjections in the finale that seemed to me too wilfully brusque, and which caught the players off balance – elsewhere, all flowed as one, the effect being of hearing the music speak as poetry might be delivered by a great actor. What particularly caught my ear in the opening movement was the music’s Elgarian “stride”, that purposeful gait which evokes the composer walking over his beloved Malvern Hills, and which seems to characterise so much of his “Elgar the countryman” personality, with its dogged determination to succeed against all odds. By the time of the ‘Cello Concerto he HAD of course “succeeded” as a composer and a national figure, and the music of the rest of the work takes us beyond such successes and into expressive realms which suggest the sadness of things beyond recall in a rapidly-changing world.

A nimble-fingered account of the playful scherzo featured great teamwork between soloist, conductor and the orchestral winds, Morris’s diaphanously-voiced ascents during the exchanges a delight, as was the “wind-blown” aspect of the accompaniments – though the double-stopped passages weren’t always perfect, there was generated a proper sense of carefree abandonment in the music’s voicings and phrasings that for me captured its spirit.

Perhaps the highlight of the performance was the slow movement, my notes containing repeated references to the playing of soloist and orchestra “as one”, with tones and phrasings literally playing into each others’ hands, time almost seeming to stand still – the finale’s opening is, of course, intended to “break the spell”, though I thought the interjection here overly brusque – significantly, the  concerted passages of the rest of the movement didn’t attempt to match the opening’s vehemence, yet were still forceful enough.

In fact the quixotic mood was well caught, especially the “things that go bump in the night” sequence with its sforzandi-like irruptions; and, together with the soloist, the massed ‘cellos rose splendidly to the occasion with their “all together” recitative. And the final section, where the music has always seemed to me to unashamedly weep, was here given full emotional rein, with its lump-in-the-throat return to the slow movement’s theme. How dramatic, always, is the ‘cello’s return to the opening recitative, as was the case, here – though, right at the work’s conclusion, while I can appreciate how the composer wanted a brusque, “well, let’s get on!” kind of ending, it seemed to me on this occasion over-projected, and ill-timed, out of kilter with the performance’s overall character.

Composure was somewhat restored with Morris and Atkins (the latter on the piano) giving us a “return-to-our-lives” performance of Saint-Saens’ ubiquitous “The Swan” which rounded off the concert in a suitably thoughtful way. Very great credit to these WCO musicians on a number of counts, not least in the enterprise of the programming, and the enthusiasm and commitment with which they undertook the task of making it all work so well.

 

 

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

An Eastern European smorgasbord at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

Music for Cello & Piano from Eastern Europe

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano  (1898)

Witold Lutoslawski Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano (1981)

Bohuslav Martinů Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano.  (1941)

Robert Ibell (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew on the Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

We are very fortunate in Wellington to have artists of the calibre of Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson. They are both very versatile musicians. Ibell is the cellist of the Aroha Quartet, a past member of the NZSO, and now he plays with a number of different ensembles. Rachel Thomson is an accompanist, associated with many local artists. They presented a program of largely unfamiliar works from Eastern Europe. I am giving here a brief account of this, their recent cello-and-piano recital  for the historical record.

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano

This is an early work of Suk. Ibell and Thomson gave the opening sombre Ballade plenty of emotion and intensity, following this with a playful Serenade. Both movements required soulful playing by cellist and pianist alike. They brought out the melodious, approachable character of the work most successfully.

Witold Lutoslawski:i Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano

This was written more than eighty years after the previous piece. A lot had happened to the world and music in those intervening years – two world wars, and the disintegration of the received ideas of what music should sound like. Lutoslawski uses the first four notes of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande which then becomes the metamorphoses, the transformation, the breakup of the notes into different rhythmic configurations. At the end of the piece the four-note configuration from Pelléas returns.  Ibell’s and Thomson’s playing rose splendidly to meet both the technical and musical challenges posed by this work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano

It’s good to hear Martinu’s music being played more frequently in concerts. This substantial sonata was written in 1941. The war was at its most brutal early stages, and Martinů’s Czechoslovakia was no more, causing him to seek refuge in the United States. He wrote this major work, which is essentially in the traditional three movements. The first movement is vigorous and energetic, the second is full of passionate longing with a gorgeous lyrical cello line, and the finale makes use of strong rhythms suggesting Bohemian peasant dances.

This, in tandem with the other works, made for a stimulating concert, and brought to us seldom performed music that was well worth hearing. I thought there was a real sense of fine partnership between Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson throughout. Their playing was thoroughly convincing demonstrating what sounded like real affinity with this repertoire. For their committed efforts these two musicians deserve our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Individual and ensembled tributes to JS Bach from Pohl-Gjelsten and Friends at an inspired St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
Helene Pohl, violin

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Peter Gjelsten, violin

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
Rolf Gjelsten, cello, Nicole Chan, piano

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2021

Thursday 14th October

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
A well planned concert has an underlying narrative. In this case it was twofold, Bach, and the scope of a solo violin. Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin are landmarks in the violin repertoire and indeed in the development of the violin as a solo instrument. The Chaconne is the final movement of the second Partita. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, describes it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”  (Menuhin, Yehudi. 2001. Unfinished Journey,) It involves a set of variations based on a simple phrase repeated in harmonic progression in the bass line, but for the present day listener it evokes a whole world of emotions, and for the performer a whole array of technical challenges. Although by Bach’s time works for solo violins were well established, with Biber and Telemann among others writing pieces for solo violin, there was nothing comparable to this monumental work. Bach develops 64 variations from the simple basic theme of four measures. These become increasingly complex of increasing emotional intensity. It may, or may not have been written in memory of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died during a time while Bach was away, but there is no historical evidence for this apart from the date of composition. Helen Pohl’s performance was absolutely convincing. Her playing was clear and unforced as she did justice to the contrasts within the piece and played with a beautiful rich tone. It was a moving performance.

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Although Ysaye was quite a prolific composer, he is now mainly remembered for his six solos sonatas for violin, each dedicated to an eminent violinist, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, second violin of the Ysaye Quartet for a time. Ysaye himself was one of the great violinists of his era, an exponent of the French- Belgian school of violin playing of the tradition of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. He was a friend of Debussy and César Franck. Ysaye’s solos sonatas are fiendishly difficult. No.5 is in two sections ,L’Aurore, atmospheric, evoking the mood of the dawn, and Danse Rustique, with its strong rhythms, that of a peasant dance. The piece has a whole bag of tricks, double stop chords, harmonics, fast passages on top of held notes, plucked pizzicatos marking the melodic line of double stops, demonstrating what is possible to play on a violin. It is a great challenge for a young violinist on threshold of his career. Peter Gjelsten coped with these difficulties amazingly well. He gave a convincing reading to this seldom-heard piece .

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
This is a passionate and lyrical work, written when Brahms was 30 and had just arrived in Vienna. It is one of the few memorable cello sonatas of the nineteenth century. Brahms thought of it as a homage to Bach, and indeed he quotes from the Art of Fugue in the fugal passage of the third movement, but Brahms’ world is very different from that of Bach. This a world in which the emotional world of the artist is paramount. Although the form of the piece is strictly that of classical sonata, it is far from the restrained expression of Bach’s age. It is a very captivating work that calls for a deeply felt response from performer and listener alike. Rolf Gjelsten and Nicole Chao played it as a like minded partnership. Gjelsten played with a lyrical singing tone beautifully balanced by the piano. Emanuel Ax, the great American pianist, wrote in his notes for his recording of this work with Yo-Yo Ma that “The cello is often the bass support of the entire harmonic structure, and the piano is often in the soprano in both hands. This constant shifting of registers, with the cello now above, now below, now in between the hands of the pianist, creates an intimate fusing of the two instruments, so that there is no feeling of a more important voice that is continuous – the lead is constantly shifting.”

We have heard Nicole Chao as half of the delightful Duo Enharmonics, a piano duo with Beth Chen, Peter Gjelsten was the soloist with the Wellington Youth Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto last week, while Helen Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten are half of the the NZ String Quartet. Like many of the St. Andrews concerts, this lunchtime concert celebrated the vast pool of musical talent in Wellington.

 

Camerata – continuing the joy of new discovery with Haydn at St.Peter’s-on-Willis.St Church

HAYDN – Symphony No. 12 in E (1763) Hob.1/12
Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D Major, Hob.VIIb:2

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Camerata  (Anne Loeser – leader and concertmaster)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis St. Church

Saturday, 20th February, 2021

I do have recordings of Haydn’s early symphonies (part of the first-ever “complete” recorded cycle of the works made back, it now seems, when Adam was a boy, by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica), but prior to attending each of Camerata’s concerts featuring these works I didn’t make a point of listening to them. This was because I wanted to experience as far as possible that “thrill of excitement” at hearing something new, which this ensemble and its leader, Anne Loeser delivers in spadefuls every time (excuse the somewhat agricultural metaphor, but its earthy aspect seems here to admirably suit the invigorating “al fresco” quality of both music and performance!).

What a delight was provided by the opening of the E major No.12 – an innocent, “conversational” phrase suddenly energised  with attack, light, and colour, augmented by horns and winds to which the St.Peter’s acoustic gave a lovely “bloom”, the whole conveying a kind of existentialist joy which must have galvanised the sensibilities of the work’s early Esterhazy listeners, if the performance had anything of Camerata’s joie de vivre, here. I loved, too, the sudden descent into the unknown with the development’s beginning, moments of minor-key mystery, as quickly chased away by the reappearance of the sun through the clouds. The sounds all had both a “play” and “play with” aspect which conveyed a sense of the players relishing the work’s colours, energies and contrasts.

A sombre but graceful Siciliano made up the second, E minor-key movement, its decorum occasionally ruffled by impulsive strands shooting upwards or plunging downwards, something in the style of CPE Bach, I thought, the whole a compelling encapsulation of melancholy. It was all chased away in no uncertain terms by the work’s Presto finale, with the ample acoustic seeming at first to make the rushing figurations sound less crisp than they were actually played, something the ear then “sorted out” better at the repeat.  Again, both the ear-catching dynamics and occasional unison energies reminded me of CPE Bach, and brought home the idea of the latter’s influence on a whole generation of composers – “He is the father – we are the children”, said no less a person than Mozart. The driving energy of this finale, with its potent dynamic contrasts swept our sensibilities along in grand style, somewhat belying, I thought, the writer of the otherwise excellent programme note’s assertion that the symphony was “a slight, intimate work”. How differently people hear and interpret the same music!

I had been occasionally “peeping” at a post concerning a 2016 UK Classic FM project involving the Haydn Symphonies, one in which a single commentator was asked to listen to and “rate” all 104 of them in order of what he considered their “merits”. To my surprise this symphony was put at slot No.101 by the adjudicator with dismissive comments such as “a fun bit of fluff”, and “a lot of composing by numbers, especially the PONDEROUS slow movement” (Heavens! – whose performance was he listening to?), and finishing with a bit of a kick down the stairs, vis-à-vis – “Not without interest, but there’s so much better to come!” (Incidentally, it doesn’t say anywhere in the post whose recordings the hapless listener was auditioning.) To my mind, all the exercise proves is the point I made in the last paragraph – that we all hear music and its performance quite differently!

A more “tried and true” work for concertgoers was the ‘Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major (Hob.VIIb:2) which was considered for a long time (a) to be the work of a contemporary of Haydn, Anton Kraft, a cellist of some repute, and then (b) to be Haydn’s only effort in this genre. The work was given the extra title No. 2 when a manuscript of an earlier, cheekier and spunkier work turned up in 1961, and was dated as an earlier work than the D Major concerto by the scholars.

Andrew Joyce was the soloist, well-known as the NZSO’s Principal ‘Cellist and as a chamber musician in Wellington, regularly performing with the Puertas Quartet (which he founded), and exploring the chamber repertoire with various colleagues. He seemed right in his element here, joining in with a will in the opening orchestral tutti of the concerto, and winningly projecting his smokily attractive tone at his first soloist’s entry, bringing to the writing a plaintive, lyrical quality in the solo line during the first interchanges with the ensemble. Later he brought out plenty of the quixotic aspect of Haydn’s writing with some deft fingerwork and bowing, illustrating how the music “dances” its way through much of the movement’s terrain. I liked also the vein of melancholy which coloured the music just after the return of the recapitulation’s first subject, the beautifully half-lit notes which rounded the phrases most beguiling, as did the passages in sixths (?) between the soloist and the orchestral violins. An extraordinarily virtuosic cadenza, somewhat apart from the character of the movement as a whole, produced some exciting, full-stretch playing to finish!

The second movement gently lulled us into a reverie, the soloist supported by the orchestral strings, before the full orchestra repeated the opening, leading to a subsidiary theme which was loveliness in both itself and the playing. Such was the delicacy of it all that every detail could be heard, the contrast with a brief moment of minor-key angst making its point before passing as quickly as it came; and the cadenza just as briefly reaffirming the music’s inclination towards beauty of utterance.

The Rondo-finale’s graceful opening trajectories allowed for both elegant lines and subsequent mischievous energising figurations on the soloist’s part. Andrew Joyce left us in no doubt as to the work’s capacity for generating excitement, with some spectacular jumps and runs, and at one particularly and excitingly trenchant point, some especially nifty octave double stopping pricking up our ears! The whole left behind in no uncertain terms any expectation of this work being a relatively “contained and well-mannered” classical piece, the music’s energies infusing the final tutti with a truly joyous and festive quality that brought forth great acclamation from the near-capacity audience at the end.

We were generously given an encore, something I didn’t know, and guessed that it might be Scandinavian! – it turned out to be a piece by Max Reger, “Lyric Andante”, its lyricism seeming to carry both warmth and a hint of remoteness, the cello in concert with the ensemble at first, but with a solo line in a subsequent sequence – a lovely, sonorous conclusion to the concert.

 

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

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

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

Rubicon RCD 1047

I tried, I REALLY DID try to NOT look at my previous review for “Middle C” of the concert featuring the Gareth Farr ‘Cello concerto played by the same ‘cellist, Sébastien Hurtaud (also with the NZSO, though with a different conductor, Hamish McKeich) before writing this present review of the piece’s CD recording – of course, it was a different performance which needed to be “responded to” on its own merits; but I also wanted to check out my reactions to the same piece heard on a different occasion, for nothing more than my own interest’s sakes. There are, after all, so many variables of a subjective nature at work experienced by any listener hearing the same piece of music twice, to the point where it can be a totally different experience the second time round. (Incidentally, the earlier “Middle C” review can be found at https://middle-c.org/2017/05/aotearoa-plus-from-the-nzso-set-alight-by-gareth-farr-premiere/).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Warm response for an innovative “Seen-and-Heard” Kristallnacht Concert at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand presents:
Kristallnacht Concert 2020

Music – Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Waxman, Weinberg, Toch, Rozsa, Bechet, Zorn

Excerpts from films with music  – “Robin Hood” 1938 (Korngold), “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” 1941 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco), “Rebecca” 1940, and “Bride of Frankenstein” 1935 (Waxman),  “The Cranes are Flying” 1957 (Weinberg), “None Shall Escape” 1944 (Toch), “Ben-Hur” 1959 (Rozsa), “It Must Schwing!” (The “Blue Note” Story) 2018 – various composers and artists

Musicians: Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano), Jenny Wollerman (soprano), David Barnard (piano)
Martin Riseley (violin), Yury Gezentsvey (violin), The New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins violins, Gillian Ansell viola, Rolf Gjelsten ‘cello), Dave Wilson (clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar), Phoebe Johnson (double-bass), Hikurangi Schaverein-Kaa (drums), Daniel Hayles (keyboards)

Concert presenter: Donald Maurice
Speaker, Holocaust Centre of NZ Chair: Deborah Hart

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I was surprised to find, upon arriving at the Public Trust Hall a good quarter-of-an-hour before the concert’s scheduled starting time, at least three-quarters of the seats already filled, and the queues still bringing people in – by the time I got my ticket sorted I found myself almost at the back of the hall, and was left wondering how I could possibly get from such a position a reasonably “filled-out” sound that would do justice to the performances.

I need not have worried, because the acoustic of the hall (a place where I’d never previously attended a concert) seemed by some alchemic means able to convey enough brightness, body and clarity of detail, even at a distance, to bring the musicmaking well-and truly to life. It was partly that the performers were such a stellar bunch whose “business” as performers was obviously the expert conveyance of the essence of whatever they were currently playing – but I simply had no qualms throughout the evening regarding any perceived lack of projection, character and personality on the part of any of the musicians. How lucky were both the concert organisers and we, the audience, to be able to enjoy such a “line-up” – and in such a venue!

We had been promised an out-of-the-ordinary kind of presentation this evening, along with the live music-making, one involving both the medium of soundtracked film, and the participation of a jazz combo paying its own tribute to a US record label called Blue Note, founded by two Jewish refugees in 1939, for which many of the great black jazz musicians recorded in the 1940s and 50s after being shunned by the more ‘establishment” record labels – we were able to enjoy a 2018 documentary film called “It must Schwing!” along with those clips from films whose soundtracks featured music written by those among the concert’s “composer roll-call”.

Concert host Donald Maurice began the proceedings by welcoming us to the hall, before introducing the chairperson of the Holocaust Centre of NZ, Deborah Hart. She spoke of the original Kristallnacht events and their commemoration by this concert, her words serving the purpose of reminding us afresh of the on-going nature of oppression fuelled by racial prejudice and cultural bigotry world-wide. She then thanked everybody, musicians and audience members, for their attendance and participation in this evening’s event.

Opening the presentation part of the concert was the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, firstly via an excerpt from the 1938 film “Robin Hood” for which he wrote the music (we were treated to the scene where Robin and his adversary, Guy of Gisborne, fight to the death, in tandem with the followers of both men similarly battling it to the end – the “separated” conflicts rather like contrasting individual instrumental lines in an orchestral work with tutti passages!) What a film! – still with the power to engage a good sixty years since my last viewing of it!

We then welcomed ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo and pianist Jian Liu to the platform to perform Korngold’s ‘Cello Concerto” a thirteen-minute long work itself written for a film “Deception”, and a piece that packs a lot of incident into its brief span. It was made the most of by Megiddo and Liu, who most surely characterised all of the piece’s contrasting episodes, the work’s “singing” quality being as well-rounded as the spikier, more agitated episodes were made sharp-edged and impactful. In a piece so condensed one felt almost cheated when the end came, so glorious here was the music and its making!

Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “classic horror” contribution to the 1941 film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was then highlighted, followed by a performance by soprano Jenny Wollerman and pianist David Barnard of music in an entirely different vein, the same composer’s “Three Sephardic Songs”, whose text was Labino, an old form of Spanish. The poetic declamations of the first song betrayed its origins, with strongly-focused vocal lines and  ambient support from the piano, while the second song was gentler, expressed with a gentle, folkish walking-gait, and a beguilingly light touch. It was music that seemed to “entice” us into the countryside, the characterisations from singer and pianist creating a distinctively ambient world of expression.

Next we saw two contributions to film from German composer Franz Waxman, who famously wrote the music for the first full-length German film in the 1930s, “The Blue Angel”, but, on leaving Germany went to the US where he wrote many film scores, among them “Rebecca” (1940) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1945) – the excerpts featured a range of musical evocations, from the romantic to menacing (Rebecca) to downright blood-curdling (Frankenstein)! An entirely different matter was his “Carmen Fantasy” for solo violin, here played with jaw-dropping virtuosity (what can a listener do but desperately cling to cliches when one is stunned?) by violinist Martin Riseley, with pianist Jian Liu hair-raisingly hanging onto the violinist’s coat-tails throughout!

Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music began the second half of the concert, beginning with excerpts from the 1957 Soviet film “The Cranes are Flying”, set at the time of the Second World War, the clips showing sequences with hugely contrasting emotions of love and despair, each conveying a different kind of compelling intensity. We then heard, courtesy of the New Zealand String Quartet, two movements from Weinberg’s Fifth String Quartet Op.27, written in 1945 in the Soviet Union, to where Weinberg had escaped (and remained) after the Germans invaded Poland. First came the opening “Melodia”, music which not surprisingly seemed to express uncertaintly and discord, a ‘cello solo towards the end leading to a kind of concourse of quiet despair. The Scherzo movement was, by contrast, a wild dance integrating quixotic and fiercely desperate passages with fraught unison passages sorely seeking a kind of liberation – very exciting playing from the ensemble, with an “over-the-top” solo violin part fearlessly presented by the Quartet’s leader, Helene Pohl.

Like most of the composers mentioned, Austrian Jew Ernst Toch left Nazi-controlled Europe for the US during the 1930s. He found some work as a film composer, though he also maintained his academic career as a teacher of Philosophy and Music in California, and as a composer of concert music. The 1944 film “None shall Escape” was a projection of the post-war trials of individuals responsible for wartime atrocities, Toch’s opening music there suitably authoritative, but a later excerpt was warmer-sounding, and more reminiscent of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. Pianist Jian Liu then played Toch’s Tanz und Spielstücke Op.40, the opening gentle and lyrical, the lines floating, and alternating as if “looking” for one another – the music gradually convinced itself it was allowed to “animate”, though it all remained very spare and unadorned, strange, gnomic music, the occasional impulse apart, appearing to “sit upon” its own character and not give anything away.

All of this was in stark contrast to the music of Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, whose fame has up until recently rested on his many film scores, but whose concert music is now achieving more frequent hearings – particularly renowned are his scores for the films “Ben Hur” (1959) and “El Cid” (1961).  We saw the well-remembered opening of the legendary chariot race from “Ben Hur” (suitably Respighi-ish in effect) as well as the dramatically-underlined confrontation scene between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend Messala, when politics put an end to their friendship!  After all of this, violinist Yuri Gezentsvey and pianist David Barnard played a transcription of Rózsa’s music for the “Love-Scene” from “El Cid”, its sweetness and romance beautifully held in check at first, then allowed to expand and unfold with the utmost feeling – a beautiful piece of concerted playing!

Being  somebody whose knowledge of jazz could be summed up on the back of a postage stamp, I somewhat nervously approached the final segment of the concert, a tribute to the German Jewish refugee pair of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who developed a jazz label called Blue Note Records, a company dedicated to furthering the careers of non-establishment (usually black) musicians, such as Sidney Bechet, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, and later signing up and  working with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Quincy Jones.  Wayne Shorter called the “Blue Note” pair “The Lion and the Wolf”, bent on realising their vision of creating a platform for musical talent to express itself without prejudice of any kind getting in the way.

A film made in 2018 “It must SCHWING”, reputedly the motto of Alfred Lion, directed by Eric Friedler, made clear, in the excerpts we were shown, the positive feelings of people who were associated with these “glory days” concerning the leadership of Lion and Wolff, the family atmosphere they created, and the fairness with which the musicians were treated. Following this the jazz musicians came together to perform a 1993 work by American composer John Zorn “Shtetl” (Ghetto Life) taken from an album entitled “Kristellnacht”, succeeding it with a tribute to clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Sidney Bechet, playing his 1939 work “Blues for Tommy”.

To my uncultured ears, the playing of the members of the jazz combo was above reproach, the lament-like opening of the music they began with coloured by the character of each of the instruments, the clarinet mournful, the piano philosophising, the double bass dark and resonant, the guitar anecdotal and chatty – the clarinet sounded like a cantor calling the prayers while the drummer at the back jazzed and spiked the rhythms.  Together, the instruments generated a processional quality that I related to Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (in particular, the “Frere Jacques” movement), before the clarinet suddenly skipped into “swing” which sounded not unike “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”! At its swingin’ height the music suddenly dissolved into more and more abstracted realms, with the guitar playing a chiming kind of ostinato, supported by the drums “kicking into” the same repeated pattern, and the clarinet taking up a kind of valediction…….for some listeners I imagined it would have been a truly sentimental journey……

It was left to Deborah Hart to thank us once again for attending the concert, and thanking also the musicians who contributed their services, besides paying tribute to the owners of the Public Trust Building, Kay and Maurice Clark, for their generosity in making the venue available to the Holocaust Centre – appreciative words which were readily supported by all in attendance at this remarkable and heart-warming event.

 

 

Remarkable NZSO concert of Bach family music inspired by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Diedre Irons and Andrew Joyce

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Vesa-Matti Leppänen – director and violin
‘Bach Extended’

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Duet for two flutes, F 57
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano, Wq 43/4 (Diedre Irons – fortepiano)
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus XIV (the last, unfinished fugue)
Cello Suite No 6 in D, BWV 1012, Gavottes and Gigue (Andrew Joyce)
Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, BWV 1068
Chorale Vor deinen Thron. BWV 668

Wellington College, Alan Gibbs Centre

Saturday 31 October, 7:30 pm

This was a very novel and interesting enterprise by the orchestra, partly on account of the venue, the surprisingly spacious hall at Wellington College. In the light of the lack in Wellington of a suitable auditorium that seats between 300 and 2000, apart from St Mary of the Angels and the Anglican cathedral, this space, presumably able to seat around 1500, could be useful for large musical events.

W F Bach from Bridget Douglas and Kristin Eade
While properly dominated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the concert opened with a touch of novelty – a piece for two flutes by the oldest of J S Bach’s surviving sons: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The Duet in F, F 57 (F stands for the acknowledged authority Falck). It was introduced with lively comments about the wooden flutes that would have been used in the mid 18th century, by Principal flute Bridget Douglas, with associate principal Kristin Eade; though I didn’t catch and could see clearly whether they were in fact playing early flutes.

It’s in three movements: Allegro moderato, Lamentabile and Presto (based on a Naxos recording by Patrick Gallois and Kazunori Seo).

C P E Bach and Diedre Irons 
Their playing of the first movement was beautifully soft and warm in tone, reflecting J S Bach rather more than do the younger sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. The playing was engaging and rhythmically attractive, and though not particularly marked melodically. Then a meandering, unostentatious second movement, showing a thoughtful and perhaps popular character, and the third conventionally brisk.

CPE Bach’s music is more prolific than WF’s and it became widely popular through his long employment in Berlin at the court of Frederick the Great and in Hamburg; but virtually disappeared after his death. However, it has become pretty familiar since the mid 20th century.

The orchestra, with Diedre Irons at the fortepiano, played his Concerto No 4 (his modern authority and cataloguer is Alfred Wotquenne – Wq). Its movements are Allegro assai, Poco adagio and tempo di menuetto, Allegro assai.

The fortepiano was positioned conventionally, with strings, the two flutes again, and two horns (Samuel Jacobs and Euan Harvey). The quiet of the fortepiano among the strings and the brevity of the first movement may have surprised some in the audience, as well as the Haydnesque character of the music though, alongside that (Haydn was about 20 years younger) it was certainly not as remarkable and entertaining as a Haydn concerto. There was a surprising quality in the slow pace of the second movement which without warning shifted to the triple, minuet rhythm. The last movement seemed to be the longest, again with curious rhythm shifts towards the end (my note during the last movement was ‘polite but hardly memorable’), but there were enough little surprises and a broad sense of interesting invention to hold attention.

The rest of the concert consisted of J S Bach.

Contrapunctus XIV
What a singular choice to focus on two of Bach’s last works, the final ‘Contrapunctus’ of The Art of Fugue and the Chorale Vor deinen Thron!

The choice of these Bach pieces seems to have been driven by the idea of death or finality.

The Art of Fugue was itself his last major work, left with no clear indication of what instruments should be employed, and also left unfinished before the end of the 14th fugue, or Contrapunctus, as Bach named them. The instrumentation chosen here was that by Ralph Sauer for brass instruments which created very imaginatively its funereal sense of finality. And it proved interesting in highlighting the singular talents of the orchestra’s brass section, including often strikingly, Andrew Jarvis’s tuba. The players seemed to place singular emphasis on the last unresolved note, avoiding the temptation that one occasionally encounters, to graft a legitimate cadence onto it.

Sixth Cello Suite 
After the interval came two of the most familiar Bach works – the two Gavottes and the Gigue from the last of the six cello suites in the remarkably gifted hands of Andrew Joyce. Though it might have been additionally revelatory if he had also played the Prelude or the Sarabande, this was a superb experience from a sensitive and perceptive cellist.

Suite No 3 
And then the third orchestral suite , BWV 1068: chosen no doubt on account of its Aria  or ‘Air on the G String’ (No 74 in this year’s ‘Settling the Score’ from Concert FM on Labour Day).

However, this was the suite in its entirety, with scrupulous playing not only by strings, but by trumpets and oboes, timpani and bassoon, horns and tuba. The varied overture, showing early signs of its later evolution in the form of the symphony, was quite as rewarding to hear as was the Air that follows. And it’s been a long time since I heard a live performance of the entire suite: including gavottes, bourée and gigue. This was an entirely enriching experience.

‘Vor deinen Thron’ – chorale prelude
It was reputedly Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron’, and not the unfinished 14th ‘Contrapunctus’ from The Art of Fugue that was Bach’s “deathbed composition”; reputedly dictated by the now blind composer. It is normally played on the organ but here was an arrangement involving the brass instruments. This performance captured the kind of pensive, neutral character that can be heard in Bach’s music, seeming hardly to seek any kind of tragic, funereal quality. Once again, it was the immaculate performance of these players that was so arresting, perhaps calling on the listener to decide how to feel about its purpose. And so it could have been heard, and seen, as a very different kind of conclusion to a very unusual selection of music by JS Bach and two of his sons.

This was the first of six performances of this programme – the rest are in the South Island:
Invercargill’s Civic Theatre on Tuesday 3 November
Dunedin’s Glenroy Auditorium in the Town Hall on Wednesday 4 November
Oamaru’s Opera House on Thursday 5 November
Christchurch’s auditorium, The Piano, on Friday 6 November
Nelson’s Centre of Musical Arts (formerly the Nelson School of Music) on Saturday 7 November.

I hope the citizens of these South Island cities take advantage of this unique chance to hear this rare and fascinating concert.

 

I came across a nicely literate, unpretentious description of these two last works by Bach (http://youyouidiot.blogspot.com/2013/11/js-bach-vor-deinen-thron-tret-ich-bwv.html)  

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ (Before your throne I now appear), BWV 668, has an interesting story behind it …

“BWV 668 is a chorale prelude, meaning that it is a piece of instrumental music which takes as its main thematic material an existing song. In this case the original music that the piece is based upon is a hymn entitled ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, which was originally written by Paul Eber in the 16th century. The source melody (or cantus firmus) was composed by Louis Bourgeois, also in the 16th century. Bach had previously arranged this hymn as BWV 431.  …early in his career, Bach created an organ chorale prelude from this piece, BWV 641, under the original title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’….

“What Bach does with BWV 641 is create an accompaniment which is based upon the melodies of the original hymn, but then adds an ornate cantabile melodic line over the top, which I’m sure you’ll agree is rather exquisite.

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ actually exists in two different versions. BWV668 is included in the 18 Great Chorale Preludes, and actually consists of a fragment (about two thirds) of the entire composition, copied out by someone other than Bach. BWV668a is the same piece, complete, with slight differences, which was included (under the title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’) in the original publication of Art of Fugue, published after Bach’s death in 1751.

“There is a story that was perpetuated by Bach’s son CPE Bach, that his father dictated the chorale directly from his deathbed. This is now considered to be rather flamboyant myth-making, which gave the piece the nickname ‘The Deathbed Chorale’. What is actually now understood to be the case is that BWV668a was a piece that was just lying around (Bach was an inveterate re-worker of old material), which Bach decided to put more work into as he lay dying, meaning that although it was not composed out of nowhere, it was still the very last thing that he worked on, and thus a significant artistic statement.”

 

The phenomenon of Beethoven – celebrated here by Wellington Chamber Music with Te Kōkī Trio

Wellington Chamber Music presents:

BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30 No. 2
Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in A Op.69
Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello WoO 27
Piano Trio in E-flat Major Op.70 No.2

Te Kōkī Trio – Martin Riseley (violin) / Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) / Jian Liu (piano)

St.Andrew’s -on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 9th August 2020

It’s a bit of a truism to say that Beethoven and his music represent a kind of apex of enduring creative expression for modern-day humankind; and while such pronouncements can be literally questioned in terms of world-wide demographics and cultural bias, they still carry weight in a kind of “perceived-by-many” fashion – it would be difficult to think of another composer whose music has penetrated such widespread spheres of human awareness, however deep or superficial. Certainly, there’s a ready and ongoing perception of Beethoven’s “everyman” quality, which, aided and abetted by popular legend regarding many aspects of his life with all of its struggles, and setbacks, has resulted in widespread “identification” with what’s regarded as his essential character, one of wholehearted and unquenchable energy and purpose, and emergence from it all as a figure of the utmost inspiration. His music triumphantly supports  this “wholeness”, its many-faceted characters having, it seems, something to say to all peoples engaged in the business of simply being human.

At this point I could exclaim “Goodness! – I don’t know what came over me!” – or even whisper as an aside, “Sorry! – that just slipped out!”, having stepped down from my self-proclaimed orator’s dais and realised what pompous utterances I’d just finished making. But the concert I attended on Sunday at St.Andrew’s of Beethoven’s music was so very replete with human personality and engagement I could straightaway concur with those words that I had read in the afternoon’s printed programme by none other than Igor Stravinsky (expressed much more simply and effectively than my high-flown observations!) – and felt “inspired” on re-reading them at this point, unaccountably enough to add my above two cents’ worth!

One of the intentions of the musicians in presenting this concert was to, as per programme, “demonstrate many facets of Beethoven’s craft”, which aim they succeeded brilliantly in doing. Most democratically the items chosen featured three appearances by each of the afternoon’s performers, and even included a work I wasn’t familiar with – the first of Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello, WoO 27, a work whose actual authorship is still being contested in some circles, but whose energy, wit and grace certainly resulted in some “Beethoven-like” sounds! I thought the “creative contrast at the outset between Martin Riseley’s violin’s bright, silvery tones and Inbal Megiddo’s  ‘cello’s warmer, richer resonances created a fascinating kind of process throughout these three movements of the sounds from both players gradually “connecting” – whether that process of frequency-sharing was unique to my peculiar “listening sensibility” I’m not certain, but by the time the pair had plunged into the opening piece’s “second episode” I felt their different sounds had begun to resonate more surely together – and the dovetailing of detail was certainly exciting!

The work’s Larghetto second movement featured a dialogue between violin (so very graceful) and ‘cello (sonorous and romantic) which together developed into a kind of “communion” in the quieter exchanges, again demonstrating  a kind of “opposites attract” concourse of sensibilities from both players – but in no time at all, the sounds had energised into the Rondo-finale, the ‘cello breaking off from the lively opening exchanges to sing an “out-of-doors” theme with the violin continuing to dance in attendance, with some minor-key wistfulness along the way creating some distinctly Beethovenish moments, a forthright unison episode notably among them!

Having jumped precipitately into a description of the music that began the concert’s second half, I feel I owe it to the reader to introduce a semblance of order and backtrack to the first half’s beginning, which featured Martin Riseley and pianist Jian Liu in one of Beethoven’s characteristically up-front C Minor works, the Op.30 No, 2 Violin Sonata. How directly this music speaks! – the terse opening piano figure descending into darkness, the violin’s reply intensified by keyboard agitations, and a brief confrontation between the two instruments suddenly transforming into playfulness! – as Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote in a poem about the flight of a kestrel, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing…” – meaning that here, exposition and development are made to the composer’s own specifications, the “playfulness” evident in the music, for example, drawing on darker, more serious elements which extended the emotional capacities of the sounds beyond where we might have expected. Riseley and Liu generate terrific tension in places, their sharply-honed teamwork focusing on the music’s volatility of invention in a way that left us disconcertingly breathless after only the first movement!

The piano’s troubadour-like song which began the slow movement was here echoed almost privately by the violin, the players musing their way through the melody’s second half, the instruments then taking turns to “augment’ their partner’s reprises of the theme, the violin contributing decorative birdsong counterpoints, to which the piano replied with swirling counterpoints above and below the music’s surface. A couple of disruptive outbursts apart, the music enchanted in this performance, Liu’s gossamer fingerwork the perfect foil for Riseley’s silvery tones. The Scherzo galvanised these realms of poetic utterance into places of action, playfully at first, but with sudden intent to sting, the piano in response effecting to try and  “swot’ the offending violin! – again such surety of contrast on the composer’s part! Without being too pronounced a contrast, the Trio’s rumbustion was delightfully enabled, Liu’s nimble reflexes and Riseley’s silvery lines carrying the day.

The finale’s brief but characterful repeated opening crescendo here made me think of a train bursting out of a tunnel and into the open, the biting accents having their moment before exchanging  grimaces for grins as the players launched into the dancing measures that followed, even though the minor key sequences furrowed the brows once again. With the train’s every re-emergence came a different mood, a sunny rondo whose performance brought smiles to listeners’ faces, a darker, more purposeful venture into the light in search of a resting-place, and, finally, a wistful remembrance of times past, until a burst of no-holds-barred energy seized both performers and their instruments and drove the music home!

It was then Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello’s turn to take us on a different creative strand’s exploration, in the composer’s Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano No. 3 in A Major – here, the exposition began lyrically instead of tersely, the ‘cello singing its opening phrase, and the piano replying as would a sweetheart, with equally fond sentiments, and a show of gallantry, before each “exchanged” blandishments with comparable gestures. After some shared minor-key complainings, Mediggo’s ‘cello began the first of those wondrous ascending phrases that seemed to lift our sensibilities to a higher plane of feeling, Liu’s piano following suit before joining in with the ‘cello in a heartwarming affirmation of shared purpose. The turn towards the darker regions of the development brought out, by turns, plaintive and passionate playing, Beethoven presenting us with impulsive, but organically-flowing contrasts of light and energy,  Megiddo and Liu then beautifully returning us from the depths of one of these exchanges us to the recapitulation’s reaffirming light. A jumpy scherzo, filled with syncopation, followed – Liu’s piano was away first, vaulting over hedges and other obstacles, the ‘cello drawing level in time for both to board the contrasting Trio’s droll roundabout, each instrument lending a hand to the music’s droning momentums and self-satisfied ditties.

A punchy “tutti” and a mysterious, sotto voce conclusion to this brought us to the final movement, one containing an Andante Cantabile introduction – what a melody! – and here, made into such a beautiful moment by these musicians! –  Megiddo’s ‘cello so lovingly preparing the way for the piano’s delightful energisings, Liu’s nimble-fingered tattoo of repeated notes buoying the ‘cello’s lyrical pronouncements along and giving rise to exhilarating exchanges, major key effervescence alternating with darker insinuations – again one marvelled at the music’s sheer articulateness of interchange, generating such momentums while maintaining a play of light and dark, strength and lyricism in the ebb and flow of it all.

Following the aforementioned Duos it was “all on stage” for the concert’s finale, The Op.70 No.2 Piano Trio in E-flat Major, a work somewhat in the shadow of its “Ghost” companion, but nevertheless having a definite character of its own. The programme-note writer particularly mentioned Schubert in connection with this work, a kinship which particularly resonated for me in the piano writing throughout the Minuet and Trio, but which was evident in the freedom of the work’s treatment of contrasting moods. At the work’s beginning, Megiddo’s cello led the way into exquisitely-shaped portals of melody, the outpourings unexpectedly galvanised by a sudden irruption of energy which served notice that anything could happen during the work’s course! The players brought out the Allegro ma non tanto’s attractive swaying motion, making the rhythm’s sweep central to the argument, fitting the motifs (including the dreamy second subject) into the music’s rounded corners with grace and ease, but also with plenty of forthright energy as those same motifs in other places jostled for position – I would have thought Brahms’s sturdy treatment of his themes in his chamber music owed something to this work as well.

The courtly grace of the second movement’s opening proved deceptive as the music served up variation after differently-characterised variation, hugely enjoyed by the players, and ranging from impish scamperings to vigorous Cossack like stampings! Eventually, the music’s inventive energies dissipating as quickly and po-facedly at the end as surely as the final forthright payoff suddenly slammed the last word home! The third movement’s gentle lyricism maintained the work’s varied character, Beethoven (somewhat surprisingly on first hearing) opting for a kind of old-world grace as a contrast to what had gone before, instead of giving us one of his physically trenchant scherzi – but in view of the finale’s unbridled exuberance and the players’ astonishing “give-it-all-you’ve-got”, response to the writing, things couldn’t have gotten much more involved or exciting as here! Those incredibly “orchestral” upward rushes repeatedly essayed by the piano crackled with firework-like energy in Jian Liu’s hands, inspiring his companions to generate their own versions of brilliant, coruscated response, leaving us at the work’s end both exhilarated and exhausted, though at the very end we greedily implored them for more, and were rewarded for our acclamations by a repeat of the graceful Minuet and Trio – a judicious “return to our lives” epilogue to an exhilarating concert experience !

Two less familiar cello masterpieces from Lavinnia Rae and Gabriela Glapska at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Lavinnia Rae (cello) and Gabriela Glapska (piano)

Beethoven: Cello Sonata No 5 in D, Op 102 No 2
Britten: Cello Sonata in C, Op 65 (movements 1, 3, 4, 5)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 30 July, 12:15 pm

Although this recital offered a good opportunity to hear two significant cello sonatas, not often played, the audience at St Andrew’s was a lot smaller than it had been for New Zealand School of Music vocal students the day before. Two lunchtime concerts a week might seem excessive; no doubt it’s an effort to meet the expectations of players whose concerts were scheduled in the months of silence: it’s a shame if audiences don’t respond to these free concerts by being as generous with their time as the musicians themselves are.

The players
Gabriela Glapska has been heard recently with the Ghost Trio at St Andrew’s and later at the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University. She’s also been involved in recent months in concerts by the SMP Ensemble and Stroma, as well as other ensembles and in an accompanying role. She was prominent in the performances of Poulenc’s La voix humaine in the Festival in February.

Lavinnia Rae has not been so conspicuous in the last year or so as she’s been a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Music in London. But her name appears in many of Middle C’s reviews in earlier years.

Both musicians played in the NZSM orchestra accompanying Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2017.

Beethoven Cello Sonata in D
Though the Op 69 cello sonata (No 3) seems to be more often played, neither the early pair, Op 5, nor the two of Op 102, written in Beethoven’s last decade, are to be denigrated. The last of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas is the only one of the five in the conventional three-movement shape; three others have only two movements while Op 69 has three which are somewhat unusual in character. The Op 102 sonatas probably need to be heard as foreshadowing the piano sonatas and string quartets of his Late period.

Its opening is straight away marked by the vivid contrast between Glapska’s arresting piano and Rae’s quiet, legato cello playing, and it continues to draw attention to the essential differences between the percussive piano and the quiet, more lyrical cello, though now and again, the two merge; there’s no doubt that Beethoven intended it to be heard like this.

The second movement might have been some kind of reminiscence of the Ghost movement of the piano trio carrying that name. There was a mysterious character in the duo’s playing, and they adhered to Beethoven’s clear intention to use this movement to emphasise a musical affinity between piano and cello, in contrast to the first movement. The third movement again challenges the conventions with a densely created fugue that, with only a brief, unexpected, calm respite, resumes its relentless passage. These were indeed the characteristics of this performance that left one with a strong understanding of the composer’s intentions and genius.

Britten’s Cello Sonata
I have to confess to not being a total devotee of Britten, apart from a hand-full of what I guess are his more popular works. Much of his cello sonata however, is moving, and though I didn’t warm to most of it at my first hearing some years ago, more hearings have given me a distinctly greater appreciation. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the skill and musicality of performers are rather important in inducing real enjoyment. My familiarity with the Britten/Rostropovich account has set the bar very high, bringing it to life with remarkable conviction, creating the feeling that it is indeed a masterpiece.

It’s in five movements, though the second was left out, the spikey, Scherzo-pizzicato.

This performance opened, Dialogo Allegro, imaginatively, with a sense of inevitability, evolving as a dialogue, such as would have come naturally from the warm friendship between composer and its dedicatee and first performer.

I enjoyed the next movement – the second, Elegia: the calm, secretive, impatience of its opening; with its enigmatic piano chords generating a melancholy, lugubrious spirit, as the cello meanders over its lower strings. The notes accurately described that fourth movement, the extravert Marcia energico: its menacing spirit generated by uncanny, fast harmonics.

The extended, scampering Finale sounds fiendishly difficult for both players. The notes defined the bowing technique, bouncing the bow on the strings in the Finale, as ‘saltando’. As a youthful cellist myself, I was embarrassed not to have known, or remembered, that name.

There were moments when I felt the composer was rather obsessively concerned to provide dedicatee Rostropovvich with a strikingly challenging work that he would turn into great, arresting music through his sheer performance and interpretive genius. I mean no criticism in observing that it’s hardly possible to expect lesser musicians successfully to uncover and give life to everything in this big five-movement work.

As so often with these lunchtime concerts, here were two minor (probably better than that) masterpieces that don’t get much played, and we must be grateful that so many professional – or near professional – musicians are ready to play without fees at St Andrew’s, and that Wellington has an amateur (read ‘unpaid’) entrepreneur, Marjan van Waardenberg, with the persuasive powers necessary to recruit them, to schedule and publicise their performances, as well as a central-city church happy to accommodate them.