“Hammers and Horsehair” (joined with birdsong) enchant an Aro St audience in Wellington


Romantic Music from Bohemia, Austria and Germany

JAN KALIVODA – Three Songs for voice, ‘cello and piano
Der Schöne Stern (The Beautiful Star)
Die Abendglocken (The Evening Bells)
Der Wanderer (The Wanderer)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata in A Major for ‘Cello and Piano Op.69

ROBERT SCHUMANN – Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood) for solo piano Op.15

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Two Songs for voice and piano
Suleika 1
Im Haine (In the Wood)

Song for voice, ‘cello and piano (originally for voice, clarinet and piano)
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock)

Rowena Simpson (soprano)
Robert Ibell (‘cello)
Douglas Mews (square piano)

Aro Valley Community Centre Hall,
Aro St., Wellington

Thursday, 25th October 2018

We sat amid soft lighting on comfortable, homely furniture, talking softly with our fellow audience-members while listening to pianist Douglas Mews “tuning up” his square piano and then “playing us in” with music that I for one didn’t know – it actually sounded, appropriately enough, like a kind of improvisation, perfect for warming up player, instrument and our increasingly attentive ears, until all was ready. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell having by then “tuned up” his own instrument, it was time for soprano Rowena Simpson to welcome us to the concert on behalf of all three musicians.

I had previously heard singer and pianist performing together (also in the Aro Valley, as it happened!) as long ago as 2013  in a most entertaining soiree-like presentation entitled “Lines from the Nile”, an evocative, if fanciful slice of local music performance history, cleverly devised and written by Jacqueline Coats. If there were fewer opportunities this time round for Rowena Simpson to demonstrate histrionic as well as vocal and musical abilities, the repertoire itself plus the singer’s glorious song-bird-like tones made up for any possible lessening of overall effect upon the concert’s audience.

More recently, I’d encountered the “Hammers and Horsehair” combination of Douglas Mews and ‘cellist Robert Ibell, in a splendid 2016 concert at St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, playing repertoire from a similar period to this evening’s, though with no actual repetition of repertoire. I commented then on the “rightness” of their use of period instruments for this music, and was delighted all over again this evening at the musicians’ continued ability to make their beautiful instruments speak with what sounded to my ears like voices “belonging” to this music. Modern instruments can, of course, “do it” as well, if the interpreter is sensitive and visionary enough, but here we had performers and their instruments sounding so integrated as to take themselves right into the various worlds of the pieces played – an extraordinary fusion of sensibilities.

The musicians presented occasional readings which linked the music performed to either its era, or to its mood, or sometimes to the contributions made to New Zealand’s musical life by various German speaking musicians.  However, we began the concert with three songs by Czech-born composer Jan Kalivoda (sometimes spelt as “Kalliwoda”) who lived from 1801 to 1866 – the  German texts of the songs were translated and the words reproduced in the concert’s written programme, enabling us to savour all the more the pure, bell-like tones and exquisitely-floated phrases brought to the music by Rowena Simpson’s lovely soprano voice.

The beautifully-tailored accompaniments gently brought out the flowing triplet rhythms of the first song “Der Schöne Stern” (The Beautiful Star), making the perfect “sound-cushion” for the voice’s solicitous expressions of hope and comfort to a fearful, despairing heart. The following “Die Abendglocken” began with a beautifully-voiced ‘cello solo, the arco phrasings demurely turning to pizzicato when accompanying the voice, both ‘cellist and pianist complementing the soprano’s rapt exploration of the song’s varieties, in places hushed and atmospheric, in others radiant and full-throated. Finally, a brisk ¾ rhythm brought in “Der Wanderer”, the music enthusiastic and urgent as the singer waxed lyrical about “strange lands where unfamiliar stars shine in the heavens”, Robert Ibell’s cello-playing giving weight and colour to the surge of rollicking energy at the music’s end.

Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonatas were the first written for that instrument which gave it proper “soloist” status. Rowena Simpson told us that the manuscript of this particular work was headed “Amid tears and sorrow” (Inter Lacrimas et Luctum), though the impression given by the work itself doesn’t really accord with such sentiments, possibly prompted by the composer’s thwarted interest in one Therese Malfatti, who eventually married one of the composer’s aristocratic patrons, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, an amateur ‘cellist and the dedicatee of this sonata.

Simpson then told us briefly about Maria Dronke, a German-born Jew who came to New Zealand with her husband John and their two children in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. Maria, who had been a well-known actress in Berlin, began teaching drama and voice production in Wellington, while John, a Judge whose legal training was not “recognised” in New Zealand, worked in menial jobs until he was able to secure a position as a double-bass player in the National Orchestra. Maria eventually became well-known as a play producer, drama and poetry recitalist and teacher, and included New Zealand poetry in her recitals – she helped lift the levels of acting and production of local theatrical ventures, as well as enlivening the cultural and social climate with her presence. According to Edith Campion, a former pupil, she was “volatile, brimful of temperament and never tepid….” She died in Lower Hutt in August 1987.

The Beethoven Sonata seemed the perfect “rejoiner” to the tale, the music’s personality as distinctive as that of the subject of Simpson’s brief anecdote. From the cello’s questioning opening phrase and the piano’s “raised eyebrows” reply, the music played with our sensibilities through minor-key agitations, and succeeding phrases whose ascents seem never-ending, everything capturing the composer’s whimsical fancies and cast-iron sense of overall direction, so that the music’s “character” sang out with all of its volatilities and overall purposes given their due. The jovial scherzo’s skipping energies were brought out with both tremendous fire and playful humour, right up to the movement’s unexpectedly throwaway ending.

I thought the brief but heartfelt slow movement demonstrated the players’ melting rapport, the phrases and colourings beautifully varied, making the most of the sequence’s interlude-like brevity, before the finale scampered in from out of nowhere, the irruptions of energy resulting in the occasional finger-slip or strained intonation, but more importantly adding to the fun and excitement of the music, the players challenging our capacities (and their own capabilities) to keep up with the rapid-fire figurations and their variants. I was astonished at the sheer transcendence of sound generated by these instruments via their own particular timbral and tonal qualities, a tribute to the skill of the players in making their instruments “speak” with such overall impact and specific focus on detail, and to their bravery in taking “risks” in aid of getting the music’s spirit across to us.

The instrument Douglas Mews was using had its own colourful history which I fancy I had heard something of at a previous concert, if it was, indeed the same instrument, one brought to New Zealand from the Shetland Islands in 1874. The next item on the programme certainly showed off the instrument’s characteristics in a way appropriate to the music, its capacity for expressing both intimate and assertive feeling, and its characteristic colourings in different registers and with contrasting dynamic levels – a “way more” volatile instrument than the average grand piano! It seemed perfectly suited to convey the worlds within worlds aspects of Robert Schumann’s exquisite pieces collectively known as “Kinderscenen”, all but two of its thirteen pieces performed by Mews for us.

A reading of Katherine Mansfield’s poem “Butterfly” set the scene for the music – sequences of deceptive simplicity containing as much reflection as movement, but just as liable to “irrupt” in forthright ways as each succeeding “picture” was brought into view. Though the most popular of the set of pieces, “Traumerei” (Dreaming) here made an unforgettable impression under Mews’s fingers, played with song-like expression, giving each note its own distinctive, but still organic, inflection. The middle section conveyed moments of urgency, with impulses momentarily creating micro-tensions that dissolved as simply as they were wrought, the whole then rounded with a lump-in-throat ascent that caught us in thrall for the briefest of moments before allowing the dream to drift away.

The “Knight of the Rocking-Horse” which immediately followed came as a bit of a shock, as the usual “At the Fireside” ( which Mews chose to omit) is a somewhat gentler “waking up”! After this tempestuous number, and the volatile “Frightening”, we were reclaimed by gentler forces and gradually becalmed, the concluding “The Poet Speaks” here properly eloquent and reassuring in Mews’ hands, and altogether part of a memorable musical journey.

Rowena Simpson then read for us a couple of extracts from a diary kept by Anna Dierks (b.1856), the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who married a missionary in Upper Moutere, later living in Waitotara and then Wooodville. She was obviously musical and when in Nelson was distressed at the lack of quality in her local church choir – an 1875 entry mentions “terrible singing”. She had obviously decided she would attempt to rectify the situation, but it wasn’t an easy task, as an entry a couple of years later (1877) indicates, re choir practice – “It is not easy to lead such a choir – but the Lord will give me strength!”.

Singing of an obviously different order from Simpson concluded the evening’s programme, three of Schubert’s numerous songs, the first, Suleika I, with a text written by Marianne von Willemer, a contemporary and friend of Goethe’s, whose poetry was actually published by the latter under his own name. Willemer and Goethe had had a kind of literary “relationship”, taking pseudonyms and trading poems under the names of “Suleika” and “Hatem”. It all made for a particularly potent amalgam of impulses, a “gift” for a composer to render as music!

The opening of the song recalled the composer’s earlier setting of the same poet’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” in its agitations, adroitly modulating between major and minor as the singer poured out the music’s intensities, Simpson carrying the feeling of the words so beautifully, doing well with the stratospheric intensities of the vocal line. These highly-charged feelings subsided into  a touching concluding sequence, conveying “the heart’s true message”, drawing forth tender phrasings from the singer and pulsing chords from the pianist, leaving the “infinite longing” of the setting to ceaselessly echo in the silence.

The second song was “In the Woods” (Im Haime), a song the programme notes described as “a bitter-sweet Viennese waltz-melody. I thought the performance most successful, with soaring vocal phrases supported by a beautifully-lilting accompaniment, and each verse of the song sounding like a true exultation of the forest’s capacities for inspiring feelings of well-being.

Before the final item ‘cellist Robert Ibell thanked the audience for “braving the elements” to attend the concert. Referring to the group’s recent twenty-concert tour of the country he recounted the experience of connecting here and there with certain people who had, in turn, a previous association with the instruments the musicians took on the tour. He also quoted from the writings of Julius Von Haast, geologist and explorer, who came to New Zealand from Germany in 1858 with a view to providing information regarding the country’s “suitability for German emigrants”, staying on in New Zealand and eventually becoming the first curator of the Canterbury Museum. Haast was a violinist and a singer, and his wife was also a singer, enabling them to take part in musical events in Christchurch, where they lived. Ibell quoted from Haast’s words – “geology during the day, and music in the evening” which the latter had written to a fellow-geologist, by way of imploring him to come and visit!

The final item was Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock”, his resplendent setting of words by Wilhelm Muller and Karl August Vanhargen von Ense, a work that the programme note called something of “a mini-cantata” in its range and scope, written by the composer during the final months of his life for the soprano, Anna Milde-Hauptman. She wanted a display piece with an especially brilliant conclusion. Schubert never heard it performed as he died just weeks after the work’s completion. Notable also for its inclusion of a clarinet part, the work was here performed with the ‘cello taking over the former instrument’s role.

At first, to hear the ‘cello playing the lines one normally encountered on a clarinet sounded odd; but as the work proceeded I came to enjoy the contrasting timbres and tones, in the sense of a completely different kind of relationship, more of a “real” partnership than the original singer/clarinet echo scenario. Here the soprano’s delivery was radiant in every way, following the long, sinuous ‘cello lines throughout the opening, and awakening the “echo-impulses” from the music’s textures. It was the piano’s turn to shine during the melancholic middle section, with liquid, fluid tones, underlining the loneliness of the shepherd amidst the quiet and empty vistas, illuminated most beautifully by the soprano’s stratospheric ascent and the cello’s introduction of more hopeful impulses, taken up and flung further on high by the soprano’s bell-like exultations, here an exhilarating effect of joyful release, with caution tossed to the four winds! We all loved it to pieces!

We didn’t let the musicians go until we had extracted what we could out of them, so intense was our pleasure at what we had heard. In reward for our appreciation we were given as an encore some music by Louis Spohr, a charming duet between a girl and a bird, in which (so we were told) the bird sang of spring and the sun, and the girl sang of love! Singer and ‘cello both played their parts winningly, the trio enjoying the conventional but still effective ecstasies of the music, before concluding the piece with some delicate, exquisite-sounding phrases. It was music-making that gave rise to thoughts of how fortunate we all were to have witnessed and enjoyed it all.