Enlightening, themed concert at hands of skilled, insightful musicians

Anne Loesser (violin), Jane Young (cello), Martin Ryman (harpsichord)

Music by composers who influenced J S Bach by
Georg Muffat: Ciacona in G major
Johan Jakob Froberger: Suite No. XII in C major
Georg Philipp Telemann: Cello Sonata in D major TWV 41:D6

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 November, 12:15 pm

It was either this interestingly promoted programme of music that influenced Bach, or the nice weather that broke out at lunchtime that brought a somewhat larger than average audience to this concert.

The programme pushed a couple of useful buttons. The names of the performers, players in the NZSO and/or Orchestra Wellington, and a keyboardist whose name rang bells, and some kind of guarantee of musical worth, inasmuch as it implied that Bach would have admired the music chosen.

Those qualities proved themselves.

Muffat was of the generation before Bach, contemporary of Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, Marin Marais, Biber, Corelli, and not long after Lully and Charpentier. It’s from a collection called Apparatus musico-organisticus, mostly of toccatas, evidently designed for the organ, though here it was played on the harpsichord, and sounded fine.

Muffat, of Scottish descent, was born in 1653 in Savoy, in the French Alps, educated in Paris (perhaps with Lully), went to Prague and then to Italy to study further and finally became Kapellmeister to the bishop of Passau (on the Danube, on what is today on the German/Austrian border).

It’s little wonder that he tended to combine, deliberately or just instinctively, the musical languages of all three cultures.

The Ciacona, or Chaconne, conjures music that Bach might have had in his head when he wrote the great Chaconne that ends the Second Solo Violin Partita. It is a reasonably well-known and attractive piece, and its performance was admirable.

Johan Jakob Froberger was of a generation earlier than Muffat (in 1616). The programme notes say that “he influenced practically every major composer in Europe, including J S Bach, by developing the genre of the keyboard suite and, like Muffat, contributed greatly to the cross-pollination of musical traditions through his many travels. For much of his life Froberger lived in Vienna, where he worked for the Viennese court.”

Ryman spoke to enlarge on that but he didn’t use the microphone and his voice didn’t carry well. However, the Suite No. XII in C major did speak clearly and engagingly. The first movement, Lament, (also called an Allemande) found its message, not through the common device of falling motifs or even use of minor key, but with more subtle means, using melodic shapes that deftly created an elegiac tone, all set to rest with the slow scale rising to heaven. The Gigue had a discreet character, attractively ornamented, and subject to fleeting modulations. There was no lack of melodic ideas of real charm in the following Courante and Sarabande. We hear little of either of these composers; a rather different and in some ways more adventurous sound than is familiar from later generations of baroque composers.

Telemann represented the later generation, born just a couple of years before Bach, and thus somewhat dubious as an ‘influence’, as his music is less complex and intellectual than is much of Bach.

His Cello Sonata in D major (TWV 41:D6) was published in a journal called Der getreue Musikmeister (‘The Faithful Music Master’) edited by Telemann and a colleague. Cellist Jane Young led the way, as the harpsichord now became just a little more than polite accompanist. Young has recently taken up with the baroque cello and her instrument (well, her playing of it) gave off a fully convincing air of warm, rich sound, especially on the lower strings, in the opening Lento. Sometimes the absence of vibrato in echt baroque playing can sound odd, even pretentious, but here Young’s steady tone was perfectly unobtrusive.

The second, Allegro, movement wasn’t quite as convincing in tone, though rhythmically vigorous and the fourth movement had a similar feeling. So I enjoyed the third-movement Largo with its calm, lyrical character. Listening to this music, even though it doesn’t have the feeling of strength and, let’s say, genius that most of J S Bach has, still fills one with astonishment for its fluency and sheer fecundity.

Finally we reached J S Bach. The solo works for violin (and cello) seem to be better known, but the accompanied violin sonatas are not half bad. The Sonata in A major, BWV 1015 is the second of the Sechs Sonaten für Clavier und Violine whose BWV numbers run from 1014 to 1019. (Incidentally, ‘clavier’ translates as pianoforte; the Germans use the Italian word ‘cembalo’ for the harpsichord. And the placing of ‘clavier’ before ‘violine’ in the title suggests at least equal importance). Here, violinist Anne Loesser emerged while cellist Young remained, so turning the ‘clavier’ part into a basso continuo one. This worked very idiomatically. In fact, the cello part evolved very interestingly, occasionally picking up a melody from violin or harpsichord which, in spite of my remark above, hardly sounded the equal of Loesser’s very bright violin.

The notes pointed out that the sonata had the layout of the sonata da chiesa (‘church sonata’) with four movements of alternating character. Indeed it is no less interesting and impressive than any of the solo violin sonatas or partitas, rich in contrapuntal elaboration as well as musical invention. The last movement, Presto is the most familiar and its warmly inventive and energetic character was splendidly realised, even though neither cello nor harpsichord quite matched the much more 19th century volume and sonority of the violin here, and I might add, not quite the whole-hearted equality you get from a piano accompaniment.

The entire recital was a great success however, demonstrating how satisfying and enlightening a themed concert can be in the hands of musicians with the heart and the skill to bring off such stylistically varied music with such accomplishment and insight.

Consorting with harpsichords – Erin Helyard and Douglas Mews


Erin Helyard and Douglas Mews (harpsichords)

Adam Concert Room

New Zealand School of Music

Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 15th July 2012

One of a series of concerts entitled “Musicke for Severall Friends”, this one featured a close-knit partnership of two harpsichordists, playing both together and singly for the delight of a small-ish but dedicated Adam Concert Room audience. The “two-for-the-price-of-one” package featured two tutor-performers from the New Zealand School of Music, plus two instruments from the NZSM collection of keyboard instruments, copies of French (1769) and German (1728) harpsichords respectively. Both were two-manual instruments, the former made in the UK, and the latter built by Aucklander Paul Downie.

I’ve heard Douglas Mews perform many times on various keyboard instruments in an enormous range of repertoire; but I had never heard Erin Helyard play before. He’s currently period performance tutor at the NZSM and brings a wealth of experience as a performer and scholar to that position – however, what I found enchanting was the energy and vigour that he radiated while at the keyboard, both in partnership with his colleague, and as a solo performer. The pair worked well together, obviously sharing considerable musicianship within contrasting playing styles.

Erin Helyard visibly interacted with both his instrument and with the music as he played, bringing an element of physical choreography to the performance. Rather than finding this distracting, I considered such apparent contouring and visual delineation an added dimension to the music, an integral part of the ritual of a specific performance. That this was very much an individual rather than a standardised baroque musical process could be seen from Douglas Mews’ far less demonstrative manner at the keyboard – here one listened to the sounds and allowed one’s imagination to put flesh on the bones of the music in abstract. Not that Mews’ playing was unemotional or lacking in warmth – but the qualities of the music were expressed far more aurally than visually.

“Vive la difference”, as certain Continentals say; and Mews and Helyard brought their individualized responses to a wonderful synthesis with the Sonata in F by Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, which began the program in a most resplendent way.  I’d always considered Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach the “stormy petrel” among the great Johann Sebastian’s composer-children, but Wilhelm Friedmann certainly demonstrated in this sonata a similar penchant for contrast, cheekiness and drama. In fact I thought at the finale’s beginning the players were using a kind of “janissary stop”, such was the irruption of percussive-sounding tones generated by the opening figurations’ rapid upward rolls. Elsewhere, the unexpected became the norm in places, the composer delighting in keeping his listeners guessing as to the various possible trajectories of the music.

After this the aforementioned CPE Bach was brought into the action on a single harpsichord, played by Erin Helyard.  via his 12 Variations on the Spanish Follia, the famous tune which has inspired well over a hundred composers to use it in their works (its origin has, in fact been ascertained as Portugese). True to reputation, Phillipp Emanuel’s florid, widely-ranging variations whirled us through incident and contrast aplenty, the composer’s use of the extremities of the keyboard anticipating Beethoven, and calling upon great reserves of virtuosity from the player, who was,in this case, equal to the task. In places the “Follia” theme was completely obliterated (at such points someone like comedienne Anna Russell would have said, “You’re making this up, aren’t you?”), though Phillipp Emanuel would adroitly return to something more recognizably connected to the original dance-tune. A dignified processional was followed by a whirlwind finale, at the abrupt conclusion of which the player straightaway got to his feet, with what felt like a spontaneous impulse of showmanship, very much in accordance with the music.

Relative sobriety settled over the ensuing performance of JS Bach’s French Suite, given by Douglas Mews. The Allemande was gracefulness itself under his fingers, the rhythms extremely pliable. The lively Cpourante was followed by another grave dance, the Sarabande, the performance here emphasizing a certain timelessness, a world within the sound-equivalent of a grain of sand, or eternity within a flower. Ample contrast came from the Gavotte and the following Bouree, energetic and engaging dances, which again threw the next movement, a Loure, into bold relief – this was a slow, waltz-like piece, offering ample space for elaboration, but with a certain piquancy of mood, perhaps emphasized by the constant dotted rhythm. I thought the player’s delivery of the final Gigue was masterly, a confident, even racy performance!

The programme’s final item was the Concerto in C for two harpsichords BWV 1061, the players swapping instruments for this piece. By now the performance profiles of each instrumentalist were sharply-defined in our minds, enabling us to relish both similarities and differences of phrasing, emphasis and gestural incident which the music of Bach occasioned. Antiphonal episodes gave each player solo-turns, though there were concerted passages as well where the rapport between the parts was beautifully, and teasingly suggested.A deeply-felt Adagio ovvero Largo (“ovvero” means “or rather” – couldn’t Bach make up his mind, here? – or was he thinking of what performers might do and was cutting them off at the pass, so to speak?) was followed by a sparking, festive-like fugue that reaffirmed the great man’s incredibly “hot-wired” musical mind for all of us lesser mortals, and done full justice by Douglas Mews and Erin Helyard.

We got part of a Vivaldi Oboe Concerto transcription as an encore and a palate-cleanser, and then (perfectly possible in a venue such as the Adam Concert Room) a closer look at those two exquisitely-beautiful instruments before they were carefully put away – a perfect conclusion to our little baroque feast!