An exuberant ‘Cello-and-Piano concert from Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Robert Ibell (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano & Cello in D major, Op 102 No 2
LEOŠ JANÁČEK – Pohádka (Fairytale)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Sonata for Cello & Piano
ALEX TAYLOR – Four Little Pieces
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Fantasy Pieces Op 73

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 12th May, 2024

I confess to being tempted to describe this as a well-nigh perfect programme at the concert’s conclusion, except that such fulsome statements are obviously subjective, and have a well-used ring about them when applied to any such compilations, let alone of the “reviewing” kind!

Let me say instead that I found the programme extraordinarily satisfying as such – and this is not to mention the commitment and skill with which the two musicians involved brought to the occasion, though they would obviously have influenced such a judgement.

A reliable measure of the impact made upon audience sensibilities at any concert is the degree of animated conversation that follows the applause – and I found myself almost straightaway afterwards talking with each of my neighbours in turn seated on either side (neither of whom I knew at all, beforehand!), with all of us eager to convey how much we had enjoyed this and that and wanting the other’s response to the same. So, this concert certainly passed the “animated audience response” test with flying colours!

One of the pieces was completely new to me (Alex Taylor’s Four Little Pieces), and another two I’d had to familiarize myself with by finding recordings before going to the concert (Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale) and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4) – all of which put me in a kind of half-and-half “knew/didn’t know” situation regarding the content, the kind of thing that can put one on one’s mettle as a listener good and proper! I was lucky that I didn’t find myself “overwhelmed” by too many new things – it gave my ears different things to do with the two halves of the programme!

First up was the Beethoven, the fifth and last of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonatas, works that revolutionised the repertoire for the instrument by completely reworking the relationship between cello and keyboard – previously a mere supporting instrument in any ensemble, here the ‘cello was clearly made an equal partner with the piano. Though the two early Op.5 Sonatas were still described as “with a violincello obbligato” the cello parts were through-composed, each having its own voice, something never before attempted. Beethoven was to give the new form its fully-fledged status in the two Op.102 Sonatas.

Rachel Thomson exuberantly sounded the opening piano figure, beginning the lovely give-and-take exchanges that characterised this movement, with its charming contrasts between lyrical expression and forthright con brio manner. Both players observed a judicious balance between the two instruments, with Robert Ibell’s tones readily encompassing the forthright and more lyrical aspects of the music’s lines. The players fully realised the opening solemnity of the central Adagio, the sounds “breathing” as if shared by a single instrument, the con molto sentiment d’affeto direction allowing plenty of expressive freedom, such as in the transitions which moved the music between different intensities – especially lovely! Which of course, made the concluding fugue Allegro even more fun, not so much a narrative as an encapsulation of changing moods, spontaneous and visceral in places, quixotic and playful in others – all so masterful, and all thrown off here with such elan and delight!

Next came a different century’s version of individuality from another master, Leoš Janáček, with his three-movement work for ‘cello and piano Pohádka (Fairytale), a work Janáček, a staunch Russophile, based on a story from a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky which was inspired by Russian folk-lore. Rachel Thomson both enlightened and amused us by reading a droll synopsis beforehand of the work’s original story, written as a programme note by the great cellist Steven Isserlis for one of his concerts.

In three movements, the music tells of the young Tsarevich Prince Ivan and his love for the daughter of Kashchei, the King of the Underworld, the tribulations of the lovers as their plans are seemingly thwarted by magic, and their eventual release from the spell and their eventual happy union. Janáček’s settings are more atmospheric and scene-based than actual narratives, the bardic-like exchanges between piano recitative and ‘cello pizzicato at the very beginning instantly creating a fairy-tale ambience, one in which the urgencies here gradually overwhelmed the music’s lyricism and took hold via driving ostinati as the fearsome underworld King Kashchei pursued the fleeing lovers.

The second movement’s exchanges similarly reflected the hopes and fears of the beleaguered pair, rather than presenting any of the story’s specifics – both Ibell’s cello pizzicato motif and Thomson’s more rhapsodic piano lines vividly “grew” tensions and agitations constantly at the mercy of the fates, eventually reaching a concluding point of suspended unease with a single, resigned piano figure. The finale straightaway had the musicians steadfastedly generating a dancing figure, hopeful, occasionally tinged with anxieties, but eventually subsiding in a kind of glow of contentment, leaving us with the feeling that true love here had actually “made it” over the lovers’ troubles.

Concluding a first half of unfailingly well-wrought musical utterance was Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano. The composer was determined to celebrate all things French, and especially so at the time of the work’s composition (1915) with the idea to the fore that, in the composer’s words “not even 30 million “boches” can destroy French thought”. The opening Prologue’s introductory piano fanfare, answered by an ardent ‘cello theme, straightaway affirmed the musicians’ commitment to the music’s sound-world, here, with beautiful, wistful exchanges gradually building up archways in places to the composer’s own La Cathedral Engloutie-like sonorities, before the sounds plaintively retreated, leaving in the memory a lovely harmonic-like note from the ‘cello at the end.

If the composer’s earlier solo piano Prelude La serenade interrompue had portrayed something of a thwarted endeavour, this Serenade seemed to engender nothing less than a complete train wreck! Debussy himself strongly objected to one of his interpreters interpolating a commentary characterising the well-known commedia dell’arte character Pierrot in this work, even if the music seems to lend itself to such a programme – the wonderfully quirky and volatile exchanges between the instruments right from the outset pinged our sensibilities and clattered through our receptive chambers! – all so quirky and volatile, with sound-trajectories whose impulses didn’t last, whether pizzicato or arco, staccato or legato, a veritable orgy of indecision or caprice, with only the work’s finale coming to the rescue by breaking the impasse!

After such chronic demarcations of expression the finale here seemed at first to burst out of the music’s shell and flood St.Andrews’s sound vistas with uninhibited energies, the folkish dance melody whirling its notations up and down to great effect. There were still more reflective moments in which one might imagine the by then sick and disillusioned composer feeling he had given his all and venting such inclinations, places where Ibell’s and Thomson’s instruments seemed to, by turns, inwardly lament and even momentarily cry out – but having made such points the players returned the music in rondo-like fashion to the opening dance-like energies, before delivering, in no uncertain terms the work’s final gesture, to suitably appreciative effect among their audience!

Alex Taylor’s highly diverting collection of miniature pieces which began the second half seemed almost over before it had started, as we had very little idea how to differentiate the pieces’ separate characters, especially with each having a German title which one might have worked out without translation given time, but had then been moved along more quickly than did one’s brain! (I “got” the first three titles, I think, but was beaten to the finish-line by the final “rasch”) – so that understanding came hand-in-hand only with the moment when both players leapt to their feet having played the whole set without any discernable breaks! Still, they provided great entertainment.

By contrast, Zoltán Kodály’s Op.4 Sonata which followed drew us into a spacious and meditative sound-world. Originally in three movements, the work was deprived of its original opening by the composer who felt dissatisfied with both his first and yet another, later attempt at an opening, so the sonata was left in its two-movement form. While the beautiful opening ‘cello solo does engender a “slow movement” kind of feeling, it makes a magical opening for a work whose character suggests both the composer’s folk-music researches and the influence of Debussy in its impressionistic colourings. Throughout Ibell and Thomson spun a truly atmospheric dialogue of interchange via the music’s leading/accompanying figures and distinctive instrumental timbres.

The second movement’s spirited folk-dance-like beginning delighted us with its contrasts and volatility, with Rachel Thomson’s fingers all over the keyboard in places, ideally matching Robert Ibell’s trenchant attack and command of dynamic variation – playing which seemed to encompass fully the music’s “no holds barred” expression, as full blooded in places as it was piquant and wistful at the piece’s end – for most of us, a real “discovery”!

More familiar fare was the programme’s last item, the warm-hearted Schumann Fantasy Pieces Op. 73, given here as if it was all second nature to these musicians – everything flowed under their hands with an inevitability the composer would have surely accepted with gratitude and approval. Originally written for clarinet with piano, these pieces eminently suited the darker tones of the ‘cello, and its arguably greater expressive range of colour (note: check to see how many clarinettists are on my Christmas card list!). I particularly loved the last piece’s “accelerated exuberance” with the composer urging the musicians to play faster and faster at the end! We loved it, and I took away from the concert most resoundingly a remark from a friend who delightedly greeted me on the way out with the words, “Golly! -wasn’t that Kodaly really something!” I couldn’t have agreed more…..

Les Voisins – delicious distortions, with swing

Les Voisins

Justine Cormack, violin
James Bush, cello
Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar

Works by Robert de Visée, Jean Marie Leclair, and Marin Marais

Alex Taylor, Onwhatgrounds (for violin, cello, and theorbo)
Maurice Ravel, Sonata for violin and cello
Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France, Nuages, SweetGeorgiaBrown, MinorSwing

St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 7 May, 3 pm

This was the first concert of Wellington Chamber Music’s 2023 season, and it promises a great season to come. Les Voisins were scheduled to play this concert two years ago, but the performance was interrupted by a Covid-19 lockdown, which prevented the talented Australian theorbo player Simon Martyn-Ellis from travelling to New Zealand.

The theorbo is a kind of giant lute and is plucked or strummed. It was invented in the 1580s when players wanted an extra bass instrument for accompanying singers in the first operas, so they took a bass lute and extended the neck, adding seven additional strings to extend the bass register. Its bottom note is lower than that of the cello. Whereas the seven higher strings  are fretted and tuned like a guitar, the lower ones are tuned diatonically, like a harp. The low strings are deep and resonant, and the instrument is said to have been much in demand as a continuo instrument. As for a harpsichord, the theorbo player reads the bass line and improvises over the top.

The first work on the programme was by Robert de Visée (1650-1725), a prelude and passacaglia in D minor for solo theorbo. The composer was a musician in the court of Louis XIV, and his works for guitar, lute, and theorbo were written down by others. The prelude sounded tentative, but the passacaglia more assured. Still, it took me a few minutes to get used to its restrained sound.

Next, a sonata for violin and continuo in E minor by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a work which my companion plays often. Leclair is well known to violinists as the founder of the French school of violin playing, and is still a popular composer for violin. This work had both theorbo and cello on continuo, which helpfully reinforced the theorbo against the brilliance of Justine Cormack’s mid-nineteenth century French violin. The first and third movements had their heart in the dance (Leclair was also known as a dancing master), with lively and rhythmic playing, while the middle movement was a sarabande, played gently by theorbo with violin. It is easy to see why so many of Leclair’s compositions have survived.

The second work by de Visée was a suite in C minor for solo theorbo, comprising a prelude, an allemande, and a ‘plainte au tombeau des Mesdemoiselles de Visée, filles de l’Auteur’. This beautiful and melancholy work was written for the souls of the composer’s two daughters. It was followed by a work by Marin Marais (1656-1728) played by all three instruments. The Bells of St Geneviève is much better known than the works that preceded it  in the programme (I’m sure I have heard it on RNZ Concert more than once) and is lively and jazzy, with exciting fortes and idiomatic playing by the excellent Justine Cormack.

Finally, the last work of the first half of the concert: Alex Taylor’s On what grounds. This was commissioned by Les Voisins for this tour, with support from Creative NZ, who certainly got value for their money. It is a set of six movements in the style of a Baroque suite. Justine Cormack introduced the work by quoting the composer, who described it as ‘a series of musical games with an emotional core’ in the chaconne. Taylor wanted to explore the potential of the fretted theorbo alongside the flexibility of the violin and cello, which can glissando between notes via the quartertones between them (whereas the theorbo can only play semitones).

Cormack mentioned the distortions created as the intervals are sometimes stretched or compressed. Taylor, she said, saw the work in terms of patterns of stress and release, with the tension of the quartertones built up in the chaconne section and released in the epilogue. The programme note said that the work explores the notion of a ground: literally, in the case of the ground bass in the chaconne, but also in the sense of ‘returning to a fixed point, collections of harmonies derived from a single pitch, or variations on a specific musical interval’.

This was a delicious work to listen to in the context of the pieces that went before. It was ear candy, with unexpected and interesting sonorities one after another. The chaconne was my favourite movement. (My notes say ‘weird – but very interesting’.) The composer had responded intelligently to the Baroque works in the programme and his work sounded as poised and stylish as they did, evoking Baroque forms within a completely contemporary soundworld. We were disappointed not to hear it twice.

After the interval, the theorbist took a break whilst Cormack and Bush played Ravel’s less well-known sonata for violin and cello in A minor. The players grew up living next door to each other as children, and performed with each other from an early age. Cellist James Bush often performs with some of Europe’s best Baroque musicians, such as the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and Concerto Köln, and that Baroque flexibility was on show.

The Ravel work was written between 1920 and 1922 and is dedicated to Debussy, who had recently died. This work follows Ravel’s principal composition of the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and was written at about the same time as his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel had recently heard Kodaly’s sonata for violin and cello, and the second and fourth movements are said to be influenced by it (though my Hungarian companion heard more Bartók than Kodaly in them). I enjoyed the rustic, lively dances, but my favourite movement was the third movement, a slow and beautiful chorale. The first movement had that characteristic Ravel quality of always moving and never quite arriving.  Irrespective of what influenced whom, this is a gorgeous work and deserves to be heard more often.

Finally, since we were almost at the point when Ravel discovered jazz, we were treated to three transcriptions of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club de France: Reinhardt’s versions of Sweet Georgia Brown, Nuages, and Minor Swing. Simon the Theorbist was revealed to be an excellent guitarist as well, and Cormack did a lovely Grappelli. These were terrific (although it always sounds a bit odd to my ears when classically trained musicians faithfully reproduce a transcription of a work that would have had considerable improvisation). A swinging end to a delightful concert, and a great start to WCM’s 2023 season.

 

Magnificent Endurance

NZSO – Enduring Spirit: Bloch and Shostakovich

Aaron Jay KERNIS (1960–), Musica Celestis
Ernest BLOCH – Schelomo
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony NO 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

Nicolas Altstaedt, cello
Sir Donald Runnicles, Conductor
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 28 April 2023

This was always going to be a big concert, with Shostakovich 10 programmed alongside Bloch’s remarkable work Schelomo. It was also contrabassoonist David Angus’s last concert with the NZSO, after 42 years with the orchestra, so it was fortunate that he had plenty to do.

The Kernis work was unknown to me. The affable Runnicles, who spent several minutes briefing us in, was surprised that Kernis and his music were unknown to most of us.  Musica Celestis means ‘music of heaven’, and the programme notes made references to the music of the mystical Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Runnicles described it as ‘mystical, medieval, magical, and modern’. It’s an attractive work, which began life as the slow second movement of Kernis’s String Quartet (1990), and was later re-scored for string orchestra. We got the full-fruit string orchestra version (eight desks of first violins, including Co-Concertmaster Giulia Brinckmeier, who took Vesa-Matti Leppanen’s chair for the first half of the programme).

Having sung some of Hildegard’s works, I’d have to say that, despite its grace, it did not remind me of her or her soundworld. It opened with the faintest hint of modal tonality and long, slow chords with a rather glittering tone, but apart from a very slow start that builds to a passionate, flowing crescendo, with a full-throated, warm orchestral sound, I failed to spot Hildegard or indeed anything remotely medieval. The next section was based on a single low note from the basses (‘almost RVW’, say my notes), via tremolo strings, and then silence, from which ultimately emerges a beautiful melody on the viola. The melody is passed to the first violin to complete, and the work draws to a graceful close.

The second work on the programme was Bloch’s remarkable Schelomo, for solo cello and orchestra. Before the concert started, Runnicles passed the microphone to the cello soloist, Nicolas Altstaedt, who told us something about the circumstances of composition of the work, the last movement of Bloch’s Jewish Cycle. He originally conceived the work as a setting of texts from Ecclesiastes for voice, but after meeting the cellist Alexandre Barjansky, Bloch decided to use the cello to represent the voice of King Solomon. Barjansky’s cello, Alstaedt told us with some excitement, was now in the possession of a local musician, Rolf Gjelsten, from the New Zealand String Quartet – something he had learned only the day before. (I understand that Gjelster and Altstaedt met backstage during the interval, so that the soloist could make the acquaintance of the very instrument that had inspired the composer.)

The work is scored for a large orchestra: three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two B flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, celesta, two harps, and full strings. In this case, there were 8 desks of first violins, 7 desks of seconds, 6 desks of violas (including Guest Section Principal Caroline Henbest), 5 desks of cellos (led by Pei-Jee Ng, Guest Section Principal and an old friend of the cello soloist, and Pei-Sian Ng, Guest Associate Principal), and no fewer than 8 basses. Bloch would have been delighted with these forces.

I have heard the Bloch work before, and it is always deeply moving, but I have never heard it played as Nicolas Altstaedt played it. It was as though he had a direct connection to the composer. There was no sense of ‘performing’; rather, it was as though these painful, moving passages of music were being drawn directly from Bloch, through the cello, directly to our ears.  Bloch said that in composing it he ‘listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent…’, and that is exactly how we received it.  It was a privilege to listen to such a powerful work so well played.

And after all the applause, there was an encore. I am no lover of encores. I would rather hold the work in my heart for a little longer than have it over-written by some short crowd-pleaser. In this case, I wasn’t too perturbed. Nicolas Altstaedt decided to give us a movement from a sonata by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (1707-1747), a renowned French Baroque cellist, which he played as a duet with Pei-Jee Ng, the Guest First Chair of the cello section. It was delightful.

The last work on the programme was Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. After the emotional depth of the Bloch, I hardly felt fit enough to listen to it. It is a monumental work at 52 minutes. There is a huge first movement; a terrifying second movement (the demonic portrait of Stalin, who had died only months before it was premièred); the beautiful and hopeful third movement, featuring the D-E flat-C-B motif that indicates Shostakovich’s name (D  SCH, in German notation), a waltz, and a beautiful horn motif; and the dancing and ultimately triumphant final movement.

The orchestra rose magnificently to the challenge of the music. At times Runnicles stopped conducting, simply allowing the solos to unfold. There were wonderful solos from Robert Orr (oboe), Michael Austin (cor anglais), Sam Jacobs (horn), Bridget Douglas (flute), Johanna Gruskin (piccolo), Rachel Vernon (bass clarinet) – and, of course, the estimable David Angus on contrabassoon.  This was the perfect repertoire to round off his NZSO career.  The percussionists were terrific, notably the sinister side drum, which adds such menace to the mirthless Stalin music, and there was some truly memorable tam tam playing. At other times, especially in the 3/4 passages, the conductor nearly jumped off the podium as he danced along with the music.

I had the feeling that the orchestra was enjoying working with Sir Donald Runnicles. He is an understated conductor (compared with, say, Gemma New, who has directions to give for every bar, and gives them in a very expressive manner). But he achieved some wonderful effects.  This was a magnificent and very moving concert.

As a footnote, there is a charming interview with David Angus on RNZ Concert. Bryan Crump (the Afternoons presenter) visits him in the workshop in which he machines parts for his motorcycles as well as fettling various bassoons and contrabassoons. The interview ends with Angus riding off into the sunset. It can be found here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/three-to-seven/audio/2018887086/the-lowdown-on-dave-angus

 

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.