Worlds within and alongside worlds – solo and duo pianists Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon at Waikanae

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Minor Op.13 “Pathetique”
LISZT – Petrarch Sonett No.104 “Pace non trovo” (from Annees de Pelerinage – Deuxième année: Italie)
BARTOK – Roumanian Dance Op.8a No. 1
MAHLER (arr. piano duo by Bruno Walter) Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon –  solo and duo pianists

Waikanae Memorial Hall,

Sunday 11th February, 2024

The enterprising Duo Piano pair of Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon gave a moderately-sized but enthusiastic audience plenty of thrills in the opening programme of the 2024 Waikanae Music Society’s Concert Season, combining a first half of solo piano works with a most enticing novelty, a transcription for piano duet of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony in an arrangement made by one of the composer’s most ardent disciples and greatest interpreters, Bruno Walter.

The music of the Symphony and its performance here were, both for people like myself familiar with the orchestral version, and for those coming to the work for the first time, a revelation, judging from the reaction at the concert’s end of those who sat all around where I was situated – shouts of approval and exhalations of amazement of all kinds abounded, which must have gratified the two by then well-nigh exhausted players who had given their all over the best part of the previous hour!

No less captivating in content and variety was the concert’s first half, in effect a mini-solo recital by Dénes Várjon which featured works by Beethoven, Liszt and Bartok. Spanning over a century of keyboard innovation and romantic expression, Dénes Várjon brought to each of the three pieces a powerhouse technique, a romantic sensibility and a neo-ethnic awareness of rediscovery which underlined both the music’s contemporary and on-going importance and significance.

Though Beethoven’s Op.13 “Pathetique” Sonata would have sounded even more revolutionary to both contemporary and present-day ears if played on an instrument of the composer’s time, Várjon’s delivery of the opening movement splendidly “threw down the gauntlet” to our sensibilities with that wonderfully black-browed opening C Minor chord and their successors – his playing reminded me of the impact I well remember of hearing my first-ever recording, over fifty years ago, of that music played by Paul Badura-Skoda, and being knocked sideways as a result!

I particularly enjoyed the player’s going right back to the music’s Grave opening with the exposition repeat, rather than merely reiterating the allegro, which I’d previously heard only New Zealand pianist Stephen de Pledge do in concert. Something else I thought particularly striking in Várjon’s performance was his “playing” of the silences during the Grave sequences a matter, I felt, of giving the pauses their full resonance, so that each new note was allowed to coalesce in the wake of the previous one. In all, the first movement was splendidly done.

I’m sure that even Frederic Chopin, who had little time for Beethoven’s music, would have been charmed by Várjon’s playing of the beautiful, nocturne-like Adagio cantabile which followed – the player’s touch, while having a finely-sculptured quality still evidenced plenty of variety and pliability, producing a living, breathing sense of line. Then, from the second subject’s wistfulness rose a passionately-wrought archway through which we were heart-stoppingly taken, and then returned to the Adagio, our trajectories a tad enlivened, but reclaiming a dream-like “dying fall’ at the end.

From strength and then sensibility, the music turned to whimsy and caprice in the final movement, with playfulness aplenty between the hands, punctuated by the occasional sforzando – a wonderful “splurge-like” clash of notes at the top of one upward run, all adding to the excitement! Towards the end Várjon’s playing brought the music’s energies almost to boiling-point, with everything suddenly tumbling over and downwards; but no bones were broken, as a quick inspection revealed before a final chortle brought the rumbustion to an end! – all thoroughly engaging and enjoyable!

Franz Liszt set three Sonnets by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch  (Nos. 47, 104 and 123), firstly for voice and piano, and then as solo piano versions in the second suite of his Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – his Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy). More recent research into the poet’s life and output has renumbered those sonnets differently to that of Liszt’s original titles, with the latter’s “Petrarch Sonnett No.104 – Pace non trovo – appearing as No.134 in some editions that include other “ballades, songs and snatches” by the poet. Whatever the case, Liszt’s treatment of this Sonnet is a masterpiece, whether in, as here, solo piano form, or in other versions for voice and piano.

Whether the impulses were grand and tumultuous or tender and thoughtful, Várjon’s playing of this work vividly encapsulated the composer’s richly varied set of responses to the poet’s heartfelt words, from the impassioned opening – “I find no peace, but for war am not inclined…” -through the gamut of emotion – “Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast….” – to the ending’s eloquent resignation – “…to this state I am come, my lady, because of you….”, the pianist “placing” those exquisite high notes near the end as the work’s true climax, and the remainder being as mere echoings. After hearing this I should have liked to have had him play the whole of the Italian  Deuxième année Book……..

A treat of a different order, however, was in store, with the first of Bartok’s Op.8a Roumanian Dances for solo piano, written (1910) at around the time he was extensively exploring Eastern Europe compiling collections of folk music. This rhapsodic music used native rhythms (a “galumphing’ opening) and themes (bagpipe-like snippets of melody) to launch and establish the piece, with Várjon bringing beautifully into being a central, grandly resonating lyrical section with a wistful epilogue. The dance’s opening returned, this time accelerating to a wilder, more percussive climax with plenty of foot-stamping before a grand peroration presented the main theme once again  – the music then “plays” with the melodic snippets as if someone might be swatting at a buzzing fly which cheekily evades its fate and has the last word! Hugely entertaining!

The Mahler Symphony was of an entirely different order, its many moods and evocations giving tongue to the composer’s famous statement regarding the nature of a symphony – “It is like the world!” he once declared to fellow-composer Jean Sibelius – “It must contain everything!”. Had one little or no idea of the programme of this work one still had sufficient variety of impulse, colour and texture to readily imagine a narrative or grand design over the work’s four movements, themselves further dissected into contrasting sequences which added unceasing interest to the discourse. Várjon and his duo-partner-wife Izabella Simon took us right inside the music’s fantastical world from the very beginning, the opening movement a kind of evocation of nature’s awakening, and (by use of themes used in a previous song-cycle, “Songs of A Wayfarer”) a traveller’s experience of passing through the natural world’s manifold beauties and energetic irruptions, to a joyful and vigorous climax.

Each of the three remaining movements had a very specific character – the second movement’s country-dance atmosphere (known as a “Ländler”) was vigorously portrayed, and further contrasted by a more lyrical Trio, most evocatively realised by the duo pair, while the spookily atmospheric third movement Funeral March (with its minor-key use of the famous “Frere Jacques” theme) here gave me the utmost pleasure, Izabella Simon as the “primo” player beautifully and piquantly bringing out the melodies, their  essences underpinned by her partner’s “secondo” portrayal of the somewhat macabre funeral cortege rhythms. I particularly enjoyed the pair’s bringing out of the bitter-sweetness in this movement’s Trio, with its quotation of a song from Lieder Eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”).

Perhaps the most challenging of the work’s movements was the Finale, which the programme-note-writer called “the longest and most dramatic”.  Mahler was to replicate the “bolt of lightning” opening of this movement in his Second Symphony’s finale as well, but in none of the other symphonies do the finales begin so cataclysmically. Here, Simon and Várjon threw themselves almost bodily into the fray, and wrestled their way to a mid-movement climax of sorts, only to have the music suddenly lose its nerve and change key, modulating upwards and into a kind of “no-person’s land!” Undaunted, the pair bent their backs to the struggle once again (the effort was excitingly palpable for all of us, throughout!) and flung the fanfare figures upwards and outwards once again – and were rewarded when the music’s goal of a triumphal D major was sighted, prepared, driven towards – and sustained! As I wrote at the outset of this review, the achievement was greeted with all due acclaim, the kind of thing which sustains a memory for a long while to come. Bravo, indeed!












Duo pianists charm and delight lunchtime concertgoers at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts presents:
Sunny Cheng and Otis Prescott-Mason – Piano Four Hands

SCHUBERT – Rondo in A Major D.951
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro Brilliante Op.82
SAINT-SAENS – Carnival of the Animals

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

A delightful programme! I thought I’d not heard the Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brilliante before, but, upon checking the “Middle C” website discovered to my bemusement that I had seen and heard  pianist Sunny Cheng play this and the Schubert Rondo in A Major already, on that occasion with fellow-pianist Kris Zuelicke at Victoria University’s Adam Concert Room over a year ago!  While enjoying the concert as a whole I had doubts regarding the duo’s playing of the Schubert on that occasion, thinking the performance lacked a certain light and shade, and wondered whether the immediacy of the venue had something to do with the impression given – here, in the more ample St.Andrew’s acoustic I appreciated Cheng’s playing of the Schubert far more readily (this time, of course, with a different pianistic partner!) The music here seemed to take on an extra “bloom”, suiting far better Schubert’s “orchestral” writing in places, and allowing the playing’s dynamics more space in which to fully register.

Cheng’s partner this time round was Otis Prescott-Mason, a young Wellington pianist who in recent times has won various awards for his playing – I’ve yet to hear him undertake a complete recital, but what I’ve heard as part of various competitions certainly indicates his enormous promise. He and Cheng certainly seemed well-suited as duo partners, as evidenced by the loveliness of the Schubert Rondo’s opening on this occasion, the music seeming to “happen” rather than consciously begun, with a beautifully flowing tempo that allowed detail the space to register and flower, a journey to be savoured along its course here as well as registered merely in a kind of retrospective afterglow.

I thought the composer’s “orchestral” writing in places finely contrasted with the opening up of new worlds as the music changed key and brought forth variations of texture (beautifully-etched staccato triplets) and for a heart-stopping moment a “ghosting” of the finale of the contemporaneous A Major D.959 Sonata, all integrated winningly into the whole, as was the “role-swapping” towards the end, with the secondo player (Prescott-Mason) taking the theme and the primo (Cheng) providing filigree accompanying chords. And we were able to truly relish the assertiveness of the theme’s last statement making its presence felt before dying away to a poignant ending.

The Schubert had by this time “honed” us to perfection for the Mendelssohn work’s beautiful opening pliability, the melodies bedecked with gentle impulse and spun with great finesse by the duo, before the music’s cheekily irruptive transition spun us into the engaging “allegro”, its “brilliante” expressed as much by an engaging variety of touch and texture as by its velocity or volume. These textures were judiciously layered, the sounds as irresistibility wrought as a fountain’s overflowing, everything splashing and glittering as the impulses rushed everywhere, then towards the end savouring the hesitancies of the “question-and-answer” sequences before plunging headlong into the work’s coda, catching us all up in its excitement and abandonment.

Afterwards came something of a curiosity, one I hadn’t realised even existed – a piano duet version of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, presumably the one mentioned most frequently on the internet, made by Lucien Garban, a composer and music arranger who made similar transcriptions of numerous works by various French composers, many of whom were his contemporaries – among them Debussy, Ravel, D’Indy, Dukas and Roussel. As Saint-Saens’ original work was scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, the “four hands” here had a great deal to do on their single keyboard, acquitting themselves with plenty of suitable panache, piquancy and poetry as required by each of the characterisations.

The King of Beasts naturally enough dominated the music’s first menagerie batch, his Royal March given plenty of pomp and circumstance and punctuated by fearsome roarings emanating from the depths of the keyboard, after which the self-satisfied squawkings and crowings of the Hens and Cocks and the madcap scamperings of Wild Asses up and down the keyboard cleared the way for the Tortoises’ Can-can, here beautifully and poignantly realised in slow motion! Only the Elephant was slightly disappointing – I wanted rather more pachydermic weight and girth in the music-making, and greater irony of contrast between the beast’s tender serenade and its portentous gait!

The Kangaroos were lovably quixotic, as were the Persons with Long Ears, while the Cuckoo in the Woods worked its magic. While I thought both the Aquarium and the Aviary could have done with a lighter and more impressionistic touch from both players, I thought Pianists was simply a star turn, the players amusingly coming to grief with their pedagogic scale exercises, depicting in no uncertain terms the servitude exacted by the desire for technical keyboard excellence and the musical aridity that results. Great stuff!

Fossils, which immediately followed, seemed to have unfortunately caught a couple of gremlins from Pianists, sounding a tad unco-ordinated and uncertain in places; though amends were made by The Swan, here limpid and gorgeous, and beautifully laid out for the players’ hands, the piece’s rather Lisztian conclusion pure poetry. It all made the perfect foil for the work’s Grand Finale, both players back on their game and producing an uproariously clangorous and swirling affair, a “curtain call” of the dramatis bestiae featuring lightning characterisations, loads of musical exuberance and great feats of finger-dexterity – all most vertiginously and hair-raisingly satisfying – bravo!

An exhilarating piano duet concert from Duo Harmonics at St Andrew’s

Duo Harmonics: Nicole Chao and Beth Chen – piano duo

Mozart: Sonata for four hands in D Major, KV 381
Rachmaninov: Six Morceaux Op. 11
Ravel: La Valse  (transcription for piano four hands)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 30 September, 12:15 pm

Duo Enharmonics, the Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano duo team, have become regular performers at the St Andrew’s lunch time concerts. This year they offered a journey from a graceful Mozart Sonata of 1765 through Rachmaninov’s nostalgic Russian group of six pieces of 1894, to the grand spectacular duo piano arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse of 1920.

The Mozart Sonata in D Major, KV.381 is a very early work, written by Mozart to perform with his sister Nanerl  on their tour in London. He was nine years old, and the piece is the earliest known piece for four hands. It was written to display the technical virtuosity of the children, with cascading fast passages. It is not a profound work, but it has its charm. Chao and Chen tackled it with great energy and brilliance, probably exactly what is required. They didn’t try to make the work sound deeper than it is. This is a charming, youthful composition, showy and easy on the ear.

Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op 11 is also a youthful work. It is a collection of six pieces in different genre. The opening, Barcarolle is dark and mysterious with a dazzling climax and powerful chords. The Scherzo that follows is sprightly and brilliant with a relentless rhythmic drive. The Russian theme is a set of variations on a folk-song like theme, beautiful and haunting. The Waltz is very much in the Rachmaninov idiom, a waltz indeed, but very different from those of Chopin and the fashionable Viennese waltzes.  The fifth piece, Romance, is a passionate  work with a poignant principal theme. The final piece, Slava (Glory), is a dramatic set of variations on a Russian chant that Moussorgsky also used in Boris Godunov and in the Pictures at an Exhibition. We are here on true Russian soil. These were played with charm, sensitivity, and depth.

Ravel’s La Valse was originally conceived as a ballet, but it is better known as an orchestral concert work, which was transcribed for a piano duet and later for four hands. It is a powerful work. Capturing the rich sound of a symphony orchestra puts great demands on the pianists. Ravel wrote this music in the wake of the First World War. Although he denied that there was any deeper meaning in the work then what the music itself revealed, it is tempting to hear in the deconstructed waltz theme, in the occasional harsh chords, a tragic allusion to the destruction of the Second Empire, or the gemütlich charming era of pre-war Vienna, or indeed, of the lost pre-war world. There are also riotous cynical passages. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen played with great energy and force, without losing sight of the coherence of the work.

This was a long journey from the seemingly orderly world of the young Mozart that the concert started with to the ruins of a whole epoch at the end of the Great War. Not only was the concert thoroughly enjoyable, it was also a musical tour of the musical world of a century and a half.  Nicole Chao and Beth Chen piano proved to be an outstanding team coping very ably with the  difficult medium of four hands on one keyboard. They played with unanimity as well as virtuosity.


Four-handed piano delights from Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke at the NZSM’s Adam Concert Room in Wellington

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke – Piano Duo

MOZART – Fugue for Piano, four hands K.401
DAVID HAMILTON – Five New Zealand Characters
SCHUBERT – Grand Rondo in A Major D.951
POULENC – Sonata for Four Hands
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro brilliant Op.92

Lunchtime Concert
Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 11th September 2020

I didn’t leave home early enough to find a park, or be able to walk to the concert venue in time for the first item’s beginning – so I came in with the first item still in midstream, actually waiting outside the door, so as not to disturb the music’s flow or the listeners’ concentration. I could hear it all reasonably clearly, and was soon caught up in the intricacies of what was left of the music. This fugue was originally composed and played by Mozart as a solo piece, a commentator at the time noting that  the composer “played this piece with no help, while others could manage it only via a four-hand execution”. There’s been a suggestion that the work was devised for a “modified keyboard instrument with pedals like an organ” – Mozart’s father made reference to Wolfgang owning one of these instruments in a letter to his daughter Nannerl – “he has had a big pedal-fortepiano made which stands under the grand piano, is three spans longer, and surprisingly heavy!”

Having settled myself in after the Mozart had finished, I was ready for David Hamilton’s “Five New Zealand Characters”, which was next on the programme – they turned out to be pieces the composer had written for two children of friends he had stayed with in the UK some years ago – Hamilton comments in a note accompanying the music that the pieces “are written with an easier primo part, but both parts contain some challenge especially in the rhythms”. The pieces’ titles refer to various birds and animals “which have a special place in the biosphere of New Zealand”.

Because of the intricacies of trying to find a seat I missed hearing clearly the spoken announcement introducing the five sections of the work, and so wasn’t sure of the order the pianists had adopted – I discovered later from the SOUNZ website that opening the set was “The Sleepy Tuatara”, the music consisting of a lyrical, repeating figure sounded over a chordal, hymn-like melody, with ear-catching dynamic variations, and a swopping to the treble of the melody over a bass ostinato for the second part. The piece’s title seemed to fit the music, but I was worried regarding the second piece’s title in view of its music –  a chirpy staccato mood with angular hopping set against running figures, quirky harmonies and textural changes – were these really “Pekapeka – long-tailed bats”? And “The Little Spotted Kiwi” was a wistful figure seeming to inhabit vistas reminding one of Monet’s water-lilies, an all-pervading 3-note figure sounding over a murmuring, watery bass.

The two remaining were less problematical – I loved the music for “The Fantail (Piwakawaka)”, a playful romp of a piece, with running figures answered with a cheeky chirp! – and the swaggering cake-walk-like rhythms of the last piece fitted the picture of  “The Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Hoiho)” like a glove!

Worshipping the Schubert four-handed pieces for piano as I do, I confess to being slightly disappointed with Cheng’s and Zuelicke’s performance of the Grand Rondo in A Major D 951  I thought their pacing of the work was nicely judged, but found much of it too dynamically unvaried  – I wondered whether a bright-sounding instrument and a forward, lively acoustic in the Adam Concert Room was something players new to the venue perhaps needed to be wary of. But, right from the very beginning, where I wanted the music to “steal in” more winningly, I felt the tones seemed too forward, too “beefy” in places, and, of course, left the more forthright episodes little room in which to really expand and make their point via contrast. Just occasionally the players did drop their tonal levels, but not for long enough – the music didn’t maintain the more inward character the playing all-too-briefly suggested. The change of accompanying figuration to triplet figures would have been an appropriate place to intensify the tones and build to an “opening up” of the dynamics, but by then my ear had been over-sated and I was wanting some relief – it was as if the composer had been talking to me in a somewhat mezza-forte voice the whole time, and I was craving something different. They played as if performing in a much larger hall, and for some reason feeling a need to reach out to its extremities – a manner of presentation not needed in this venue!

Fortunately, both the Poulenc and the Mendelssohn items that remained gave a lot of pleasure by dint of the players’ responsiveness to the music’s “character”. I enjoyed the motoric “charge” of the Poulenc Sonata ’s opening, a mood that changed to wistful wandering for a while before the opening “clattered” back again, only to be abruptly “kicked downstairs” for its pains!

The second movement’s ostinato-like figurations alternated charming sequences with acerbic gestures, the playing’s tonal variation of a range that the Schubert item should have had; while the last movement playfully tossed figures between the hands, before building up a growling, insistent bass to near orchestral splendour – Poulenc’s melodies had such insouciance, such a simple, casual manner, with a ‘kind of “nudge-wink” ending proclaiming “That’s all, folks!” Most engaging!

I thought the Mendelssohn work “Andante and Allegro Brilliant” got the concert’s best playing from the pair, the playing romantically full-throated at the work’s beginning, with plenty of light and shade and rhythmic pliancy of phrasing, all of which gave the onset of the Allegro a sparkling energy which conveyed rippling fun and enjoyment, including some great swirling bass figurations! A more lyrical, gently swaying episode mid-movement captured a trio-like contrasting relaxation, the minor-key moments conveying a real sense of the music’s melancholy – some additional swirling arpeggiations  brought back the lyrical “trio” section in a heart-easing way, Cheng and Zuelicke pulling out the pianistic throttle with a Lisztian deluge of running figures that together brought the music home – a whirlwind triplet-driven coda left us breathless and satisfied at the end – great stuff!


Wanganui Music Society 75th Jubilee Concert includes Wellington guest musicians

Wanganui Music Society 75th Jubilee Concert

Vocal and instrumental music
Various Artists

The Concert Chamber, War Memorial Centre,
Queen’s Park, Watt St,. Whanganui

Sunday, 8th March 2020

Every now and then (and without warning) a “Middle C” reviewer will be overcome by a “questing s

pirit” which will result in the same reviewer popping up somewhere unexpected and writing about an event whose location, on the face of things, seems somewhat outside the parameters of the usual prescription for “Middle C’”s coverage – vis-à-vis, “concerts in the Greater Wellington region”. In this case mitigating circumstances brought a kind of “Capital connection” to a Whanganui occasion, and certainly one that, when I heard about the details beforehand, was (a) eager and (b) pleased to be able to take advantage of the chance to attend and enjoy!

This was the 75th Jubilee Concert given by the Wanganui Music Society in the city’s magnificent Concert Chamber, part of the superbly-appointed War Memorial Centre. The concert was one which brought together musicians who were either members of the Society or who had previously contributed to past programmes – so there was a real sense of appropriateness concerning the event’s overall essence and presentation of community performance and guest participation. And though my own connections with the city and its cultural activities were more tenuous,  I felt here a kind of “once-removed” kinship with the efforts of the Society and its artists, being a Palmerstonian by origin and in the past having taken part in similar events in that not-too-far-away sister-city.

To be honest, however, my presence at the concert was largely to do with a particular piece of music being performed that afternoon – Douglas Lilburn’s song-cycle, Sings Harry must be one of the most quintessential Kiwi artistic creations of singular expression ever made, bringing together, as it does, words and music formed out of the flesh and blood, sinews and bones of two this country’s most archetypal creative spirits, Lilburn himself and poet Denis Glover. The Sings Harry poems were the poet’s homespun observations about life made by a once-vigorous old man looking back on his experiences for better or for worse – and six of these poems were taken by the composer and set to music that seemed to many to fit the words like a second skin.

Glover, at first enthused by his friend Lilburn’s settings, gradually came to disapprove of them, at one low point famously and disparagingly characterising the music as “icing on my rock cakes!”. The work has survived all such vicissitudes, but still today doesn’t get performed as often as I, for one, would like to hear it. Which is where this concert came in, offering the chance to hear one of the piece’s most respected and widely-acknowledged exponents, Wellington baritone Roger Wilson, bring it all to life once more, rock-cake, icing and all, for the edification of those who attended this Jubilee event.

Another Wellington connection was afforded by a second singer, mezzo-soprano Linden Loader, who’s been in the past a familiar performer in the Capital’s busy round of concerts, if mostly, in my experience, as a member of a vocal ensemble rather than as soloist. Here, though, she took both roles, firstly as a soloist in two of Elgar’s adorable Sea Pictures and a folksong arrangement, My Lagen Love by Hamilton Harty, and then joining Roger Wilson for three vocal duets, one by Brahms and two by Mahler, the latter calling for some “characterful” expression which both singers appeared to relish to the utmost!

The only other performer whose name I knew, having seen and heard her play in Wellington as well, was flutist-cum-pianist Ingrid Culliford, whose prowess as a flutist I’d often seen demonstrated in concert, but not her pianistic skills, which made for a pleasant surprise – her partnership with ‘cellist Annie Hunt created a winning “ebb-and-flow” of emotion in Faure’s Elegy; and while not particularly “appassionato” the playing of Saint-Saens’s work Allegro appassionato by the pair had plenty of wry mischief – an affectionate performance! She also collaborated as a pianist with the excellent young flutist Gerard Burgstaller, in a movement from a Mozart Flute Concerto, and then as a flutist herself with soprano Winifred Livesay in beautifully-voiced and -phrased renderings of American composer Katherine Hoover’s evocative Seven Haiku.

Other performers brought to life what was in sum a varied and colourful amalgam of music, among them being pianist Kathryn Ennis, possibly the afternoon’s busiest performer! As well as partnering both Linden Loader in music by Elgar and Hamilton Harty, with Roger Wilson joining the pair for vocal duets by Brahms and Mahler, Ennis then later returned with Wilson for Lilburn’s Sings Harry, and, finally, closed the concert with two piano solos, pieces by Liszt and Khachaturian. I though her a sensitive and reliable player, very much enjoying her evocations with Loader of the differing oceanic characters in the Elgar Songs, singer and pianist rich and deep in their response to “Sea Slumber Song”, and creating a bard-like kind of exotic wonderment with “Where Corals Lie”. Harty’s My Lagen Love also teased out the best in singer and pianist, here a winning mix of lyricism and candid expression, with a nicely-moulded piano postscript.

Piano duettists Alison Safey and Alton Rogers brought flow and ear-catching variety of tone to their performance of the first movement of a Mozart Sonatina K.240, before further treating us to Matyas Seiber’s Three Short Dances, each one given an appropriate “character” (I liked the slow-motion Habanera-like aspect of the opening “Tango” a good deal!). Afterwards came violinist Jim Chesswas, most sensitively accompanied, I thought, by pianist Leonard Cave, the two recalling for me childhood memories of listening to Gracie Fields’ voice on the radio, with a strong, sweetly-voiced rendition of The Holy City, giving me a lot of unexpected pleasure!

Roger Wilson’s and Linden Loader’s “Duets” bracket both charmed (Brahms) and entertained (Mahler) us, the singers collaborating with pianist Kathryn Ennis in Brahms’s “Es rauschet das Wasser” to bring out moments of true magic in the lines’ interaction (ardent, steadfast tones from Loader, and tenderly-phrased responses from Wilson, the two voices blending beautifully towards the song’s end, with everything admirably echoed by Ennis’s resonant piano evocations). After this the Mahler duets were riotous fun, each singer a vivid foil for the other, the characterisations almost larger-than-life, but readily conveying the texts’ none-too-subtle directness.

Soprano Marie Brooks began the concert’s second half, her sweet, soubrettish-like tones well-suited to Faure’s Après Un Rêve, her line secure, somewhat tremulous of character, but well-focused – her pianist, Joanna Love, proved an admirable collaborator, whose sounds blended happily with the voice. Flutist Gerard Burgstaller then impressed with his control and command of line and breath in Mozart’s opening movement of K313, as did soprano Winifred Livesay in Katherine Hoover’s Seven Haiku, her partnership with Ingrid Culliford as mentioned above, distilling some memorable moments of loveliness.

Sings Harry was a focal point for me, of course, Roger Wilson here admirably characterising the work’s unique qualities in his brief spoken introduction, remarking on its essential “elusiveness” for the performer, and nicely characterising his “journey” of involvement with the work. Here I thought singer and pianist effectively evoked “Harry and guitar” at the outset, and caught the whimsicality of the character’s “sunset mind” which followed, in a suitably harlequinesque manner. Of course, Glover and Lilburn whirl us almost disconcertingly through such moments before setting us down in deserts/oases of aching reflection – firstly “Once the days”, and even more tellingly, after the whirlwind of “Come mint me up the golden gorse”, leaving us almost bereft in the following “Flowers of the Sea”, The latter sequence here palpably grew in poignant resignation with each utterance, leaving us at the end “broken open” and completely at the mercy of those ceaseless tides. I thought Wilson’s and Ennis’s presenting of both this and the concluding “I remember” totally “inside” the words and music, and felt somewhat “lump-in-the-throat” transfixed by the ending – Harry, with his guitar, was left as we had found him, but with so much understanding and intense wonderment by then imparted to us……

Kathryn Ennis concluded the concert with two piano solos, firstly Franz Liszt’s well-known Liebestraum No. 3 and then a work new to me, a Toccata by Aram Khachaturian. While I thought the Liszt technically well-managed I thought everything simply too reined-in as the piece gathered in intensity, the expression held back as if the player was fearful of provoking that often-voiced criticism of “vulgarity” made by detractors of the composer and his work, but which in committed hands can, of course, produce such an overwhelming effect! Better was the Khachaturian, presented like some kind of impressionistic “whirl” here, to great and memorable effect – happily, a fitting conclusion to the proceedings!



Splendid piano-four-hands recital crowned by the Schubert Fantasie in F minor: Emma Sayers and Rachel Thomson

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Piano Duo: Emma Sayers and Rachel Thomson

Arensky: Six Children’s Pieces, Op 34
David Hamilton: Five New Zealand Characters
Schubert: Fantasie in F minor, Op 103

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 4 March, 12:15 pm

Here was a charming and admirable lunchtime recital: the ideal recipe for cleansing your emotions and mind of the wild, eccentric experiences of this year’s Festival: in my case a Kopernikus and a Mad King in close proximity.

Piano duets can be edgy affairs as they demand a perfection of ensemble that’s called for from hardly any other musicians who play together. Apart from the Schubert, this was not heavy-weight material, but the demands in both the Arensky and the Hamilton were no less great.

Arensky for Children??
Arensky’s Six Children’s Pieces might be somewhat modelled on Schumann’s Op 15, pretending to evoke things that children respond to; but if you look at YouTube you’ll see that Arensky really did have children in mind as performers – not any children, mind you. But most of Schumann’s are not very manageable by children.

The first, Fairy Tale (simply Conte in the original French edition), was a very engaging piece, in three – shall we call them phases? – that started quietly, became a little more bold, and ended boisterously. Charmingly articulated. There was a recognisable, amusing and talented cuckoo, followed by tears (Les larmes) that was gently meditative rather than grief-stricken; I couldn’t stop being impressed by the sequences of big four-handed chords that were so perfectly together. It ended with an unresolved cadence.

The charming Waltz would have been rather more delightful for children to listen to than to play. Then Berceuse – cradle song – that was not particularly hushed, but interestingly varied between the four hands; and finally the Fugue on a Russian Theme, which as you’d expect, introduced the child to the mysteries and sophistication of a fugue. Rachel Thomson spoke about it at the end but I missed much of what she said as the microphone was either not working or set too low.

David Hamilton’s Five New Zealand Characters were comparably charming pieces, quite approachable. Their titles hinted, more or less, at what the music depicted, though I will risk attack from some quarters by doubting the success of music that attempts to conjure the song of the tuatara or the long-tailed bat: neither is particularly audible. However, the defence will be that the pieces don’t pretend to imitate sounds, but rather, an individual’s musical feeling contemplating such creatures. The other three: kiwi, fantail and yellow-eyed penguin (perhaps), conjure sounds. However, the pieces are all individual and perfectly attractive, and though they have the virtue of not employing avant-garde characteristics, they sound distinctly of our own time. One of their charming features was the evocation of Scott Joplinesque sounds to depict the penguin.

Schubert Fantasie in F minor
The major work was probably Schubert’s posthumous Fantasie in F minor which really takes its place among his last three sonatas.  It’s really so comparable to the sonatas, apart from things like the return of the first theme of the opening movement at the start of the last. There are four contrasted movements lasting in total about 18 minutes, of musical substance and inspiration that places it among Schubert’s masterpieces of his last year and probably among the greatest of all works for piano four hands.

This was certainly the reason I didn’t dare miss it and, I like to believe, for the slightly bigger than average audience. It began with the first theme lovingly played by Emma, soon joined in the bass by Rachel, re-handling the first theme. Not only was their playing so careful, so perfect in its thoroughly rehearsed ensemble details, but also in the way it moved into the second movement, Largo. Almost the depth of Beethoven, though Schubert’s ineffable lyricism infuses the whole work so perfectly, that there can be no hint of comparison with Beethoven that might suggest Schubert’s inferiority. The triple time third movement, Allegro vivace, is so happy and so spirited that it’s impossible to believe that the inevitability of death within a few months must have been constantly in Schubert’s mind.

The one very distinct break, a total change of mood, from the sanguinity of the ‘scherzo’ to the seriousness and occasional drama of the last, Allegro molto moderato. I wonder if that puzzles pianists: does ‘molto’ qualify ‘allegro’ or ‘moderato’? Does it mean ‘Molto allegro’, but a bit of moderation, or an ‘Allegro’ tempered by a marked moderation.

In any case, what I really wanted at its end, more than a coffee, was a repeat of the whole thing. I can’t remember when I last heard it live, and wondered whether if the gods brought my fingers back to life, I could be partner in a performance of this divine music.

A wonderful start (for me, as I’ve missed the first two or three) to the year of great lunchtime music from St Andrew’s.  


Intelligent programming of piano duets from markedly contrasted pianists at St Andrew’s

St. Andrews lunchtime concert

Piano Duets by Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninoff

Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke, piano

St. Andrews on the Terrace.,Wellington

Wednesday 23 October 2019, 12:15 pm

Outside it is a bleak, stormy day, but step inside St. Andrews, get warm and listen to some beautiful music and you feel better. Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke are both experienced, skilled pianists, active performers and piano teachers in Wellington. They make a formidable a piano duet team. Their senses of the piano are different; one hears the piano as more of a percussive, rhythmic instrument, while the other as lyrical and melodic. The two pianists complemented each other, in a conversation, a discussion, rather than a unanimous single voice. They presented a carefully constructed programme, four pieces or movements by three very different composers, Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

Claude Debussy: Petite Suite for piano four hands, L.65

This is young Debussy, colourful music, perhaps better known in its orchestral version. It is fragile, meditative, other-worldly. This was a technically impressive performance, but some of the fragility, imaginative resonance was missing. The emphasis was on ‘captivating rhythms’ rather than on the ‘lyrical melodies’ alluded to in the programme notes. Still, it was a pleasure to hear these little works, a gentle boat ride, a parade full of colour, a nostalgic echo of the Menuet of an earlier era, and the final movement, the energetic Ballet.

Johannes Brahms: Souvenir de la Russie for piano four hand. Anh IV/6

Brahms was still a teenager, playing the piano in a Hamburg tavern when he was approached by a music publisher to arrange some of the Russian music he might have played or heard for piano duet. These charming little songs are based on Russian and Bohemian folk songs and some considered them to be misattributed to Brahms, but whoever arranged them they are melodious, easy listening. Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke chose four pieces of the collection of six, Der Zweig (the Branch), In der Morgendämmerung wecke sie nicht (Don’t wake her at dawn), Die Nachtingall (The nightingale), and Ein Grosses Dorf liegt auf dem Weg (There is a big village by the road).

These were selected for their connection to the Russian themed duets of Rachmaninoff that followed. The two pianists changed sides, Zuelicke playing treble and Cheng the bass, and the music had a different feel, not just because young Brahms was different from Debussy, but also because the playing had a more mellow quality.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Four selections from Six Duets, Op.11

Barcarolle is a theme linked to the opening of the concert, Debussy’s En Bateau. Both suggest gliding of oars over water. Scherzo is an energetic movement of highly contrasting sections, Valse suggests the air of a ball a frequent feature of Russian literature, while Slava (Celebration) is based on an old Russian liturgical chant used in the coronation scene in Boris Godunov. This final work was a rollicking conclusion to a fine recital.

This was intelligent programming and the programme notes were informative.

The St. Andrews Wednesday lunch time concerts provide a wonderful opportunity to hear some of the outstanding local talent. It also gives musicians a chance to shine in a public recital. These two pianists deserved to be heard in this delightful enjoyable concert.

Exhilarating piano duet delight at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

The Blue Danube and Duo Enharmonics

Duo Enharmonics – Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (Piano music for 4 hands)

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Wednesday 3 April, 12:15 pm

Some years ago both Nicole Chao and Beth Chen studied with Thomas Hecht at the New Zealand School of Music. They formed a piano duo partnership and have been close friends ever since. They went overseas, studied further, came back, and carried on playing together.

Four hands playing on one keyboard is a very difficult form of chamber music. There is no contrast, no different tone colour or timbre to separate or contrast the voices. The two pianists have to think and play like one. Such unanimity was evident in this concert. It started with Debussy’s charming, well known Petite Suite, though better known in its orchestral version. It is a playful piece and was played with lovely sonority and clear phrasing.

Then came the huge, taxing, four-hand version of the first movement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I imagined the two friends, very accomplished pianists, getting together and saying ‘Let’s have some fun’. ‘What can we play to test the limits of the piano?’ and they opted for The Rite of Spring. The one piano, four hands, has to capture the vast kaleidoscopic range of a large orchestra, with its full tonal and colour range. The music moves from powerful, loud, fast passages to contrasting gentle, lyric melodies. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen played with forceful energy, and captured the magic of the ballet.

This challenging work left the audience with a sense of exhilaration. But that was not all. The concert was capped with Greg Anderson’s arrangement of the Blue Danube Waltz. Forget a gentle cruise down the Danube, or twirling to the tune of a gentle waltz in some crystal illuminated ballroom. Greg Anderson completely deconstructed the well known work of Johann Strauss. He embraced Heavy Metal, popular American music, and a whole range of contemporary sounds with rhythmic echos of old Vienna.

It was great fun. Let’s have more of this, let’s hear this talented pair again.


Direct from Nelson: Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon in singular, absorbing solo and duet piano music

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – piano duet and solo

Bach: Two Chorales transcribed by György Kurtág: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig
Schubert: Lebensstürme in A minor, D 947
Debussy: Petite Suite
Beethoven: Sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106 (Hammerklavier)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 17 February, 2:30 pm

This concert was, reportedly, arranged through a somewhat unorthodox arrangement between the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and the Waikanae society. I’d spent five days in Nelson and had heard Dénes Várjon playing about four times, including once with his wife Izabella. One of them included the Hammerklavier as well as the last sonata, Op 111; but the first three pieces in this recital were played after I left. I was delighted to hear them at Waikanae.

Bach was a major source of inspiration for contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág and he made several arrangements of arias from the chorales. I didn’t know these ones; and listening to these piano duet arrangements one could be forgiven for wondering who the composer was, as the early stages of both had an enigmatic character that really didn’t bring Bach to mind straight away. The sounds seemed influenced by at least late 19th century music: harmonically as well as in the pianists’ articulation and dynamics. But with the underlying Bachian melodies,  the music revealed such intense conviction and coherence, it slowly became clear that Bach was the unmistakable inspiration. In Gottes Zeit, the bass (Dénes) entered first and then Izabella with the treble part. Though the two pianists showed remarkable uniformity of rhythm and musical character, what astonished me was the way the primo and secondo parts had such distinct voices. In the second chorale, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, I was fascinated by the sound Izabella drew from the piano, almost as if she had secreted a rank of organ pipes in the piano, so pure and bell-like was the sound. In speaking with others who were also mesmerised by it, I gathered that it was achieved by keeping the key slightly, very sensitively depressed, holding the hammers in a certain position on the strings.

It was a beautiful performance that created a profoundly meditative spirit, with the most intriguing counterpoint. In both the pieces, the fascination lay in the profound sense of Bach’s presence throughout, even though so much was conspicuously of the 20th century.

Schubert’s Lebensstürme 
The duo’s playing of Schubert’s late Lebensstürme D 947 was driven by a single-minded determination to draw attention to contrasts and similarities between the Bach/Kurtág pieces and the Schubert; their request for no applause at the end of the Bach was clearly to highlight unexpected relationships that might enrich audience response to both. Their close juxtaposition certainly did that for me. At the most superficial level one could hear comparable spiritual and intellectual characteristics in both. Schubert’s abrupt call to attention with heavy opening chords might not have been the clearest Schubert signature, but the following lyrical episodes did clarify the matter; and certain dramatic passages, and some quite elaborate material in the development section suggested that Schubert had Beethoven’s more serious and intense piano pieces in mind.

There is speculation that this piece was the first movement of a planned sonata for two pianos, and the structure of the piece and weight of the music, especially the first arresting theme which returned several times, made that seem very likely. It was again a most authoritative and engaging performance.

Petite Suite 
Debussy’s Petite Suite is familiar, not so much in its original four-hands version, but in the various orchestrations.  I must say that as with many (most?) French piano pieces of the late 19th century, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, that got themselves orchestrated are more interesting, even exciting, in their original piano version.  The tip-toe dancing  in the second movement, Cortètge, and the quirky, forthright music in Ballet, seems so perfectly attuned to the piano, especially with all the weight or lightness and colour available when four hands are engaged.

Much of this renewed delight in original piano versions is the result of the delightful, infectious playing by this gifted and inspiring duet.

In the second half, Dénes Várjon was left alone to play Beethoven’s Op 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. My reaction to this performance, in a different space, on a Fazioli piano rather than a Steinway, was similar in some ways, though I guess that the warmer, perhaps easier to achieve lyricism and clarity on this piano in this space removed a certain amount of what I described, inspiring words like ‘tumultuous’, ‘abandon’, ‘the wild character of this performance’, ‘unbridled power’, ‘rebellious’.

The speed, energy and power of the performance were here at Waikanae, and the precipitate changes of emotion and mood, dynamic contrasts from bar to bar, again held the audience spell-bound. The delicious toying with the listener’s conventional expectations were still there to surprise, for example, the witty petering out at the end of the Scherzo. And teasing, aborted gestures that keep you in their grip in the slow movement.

But the last movement seemed to recall best the impression of abandon, of ‘rough and tumble’, the unexpected (even though familiar) halt in the middle of the last movement, and the massive forays that command the keyboard from top to bottom, made this an exciting and draining performance, fully the equal of what I’d heard in Nelson.

And, as in Nelson, it was a sold-out recital that won huge applause.


Two pianists: rapport, stamina, poetry at NZSM Adam Concert Room

Lunchtime recital, piano four hands – Jian Liu and Hamish Robb

Te Koki: New Zealand School of Music, in Adam Concert Room at Victoria University

Friday 22 September 2017, lunchtime

Lucky we were to attend this lunchtime concert at New Zealand School of Music. It was luminous in several respects.

Firstly the choice of programme – three works, by Schubert, Hindemith and Debussy.

… with pithy and pertinent verbal introductions by Hamish Robb before each piece. Not every musician has this gift of communication, to wear his learning lightly in talking about composition in a way that makes audience feel drawn in to the work, as active participants in its performance. Two pianists, four hands, many ears.

These two men play with such rapport, stamina, clarity and poetry that we are taken on a journey out and about, round and back to ourselves… then left simply to roar our gratitude. How else can an audience communicate a transcendent experience? Actually there were plenty of smiling and talking audience members lingering for ages afterwards to confirm that it was indeed a shared experience, and that I am not making this up.

Schubert’s  Fantasie in f minor, D940 opens with an allegro molto moderato of clear strength in half the world, with a wistful motif that will return to haunt us.  The largo is next, bringing a gentle sadness … the other half of the world. Well, there is life and there is death, and stuff in between, this we all know. The scherzo, action-station, journeys out to do what has to be done. The finale confirms that although these movements are distinct in contrasting moods, and were set in 1828,  they are also tightly bound together so that the nigh-20 minute composition plays out as one, today. It seemed a kind of testament, albeit almost 200 years later, to what’s still out there. ( I had spent two days and nights of agonized waiting for news of family in Mexico. This music was a dreamed report from the field).

Then the Hindemith Sonata for four hands. What is consonant, what is dissonant? It’s Germany 1938.  I had really only known Hindemith as composer of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, and that remains a striking piece  of 20th century dance history if ever there was one… oh, and the memory that our daughter who as a college student had played the Eight Pieces for flute in an exam – scoring honours for that (but failing in the Scales section as she didn’t realize — read, couldn’t believe — that you also had to play scales). I remember a crispness, an unpredictability, a weightlessness to that music.  Something distilled.

Debussy’s Petite Suite – in four movements that again scope the options of the ways we are in the world. En bateau – no-one composes the sea like Debussy. Cortège, a progressing, then Menuet : moderato. I’ve never known a menuet like it … calm and courteous, as any menuet would be, a friendship between two people … then whacko, a post-modern middle bit that goes awol, cats are dancing, this ain’t no menuet any more, lawks however will this end? Eventually they move back to the danse-a-deux, and safely home from a risky encounter. Then to the final movement, Ballet : Allegro giusto – and what a waltz, the world whirling in triple time, heartbeat rhythm, so it’s “yes to everything” though nothing mindless in saying / playing that.

I was aware that Debussy  knew a great deal about dance, and intuited even more …   (Nijinksy knew that too, so his Après Midi d’un Faune , to Debussy, remains one of the finest entwinings of the two-arts-into-one that we have, and the only surviving work of that output of choreographic genius we have let slip away, to our eternal loss).

This was a free lunch-time concert, all praise to Te Koki – New Zealand School of Music. Furthermore it was demonstration of civilized co-operation between two gun pianists who, in other times and places, might behave as rival colleagues — here instead they share a keyboard. Politicians should have been there.

The day before, I had attended, because a grandmother would, a school concert to hear a granddaughter play her small cello in the little orchestra. Afterwards the Principal of the school spoke to performers and audience alike, reminding us that the two things that matter most in the world are Music and Family – ( then he added Dance, since a row of keen kids had performed the cancan to one of their schoolmates’ items. Phew, that was lucky, I thought). All told and on balance, I had a very good week.

It is such an infectious affair to hear musicians performing so absolutely at the top of their game, and communicating their own immense pleasure in doing so.  It transfers to a mood of hope that people can help people, that elections within a democracy can work, more or less, that there are worthwhile things to say to children, and that daylight saving means there’s not one hour to waste in whatever we consider important. Do it.

The recital could well be repeated but by the time this review is published both pianists will have played half a dozen more programmes — they were at The Third Eye that same night …  soon leaving for China … allegro ma non troppo,  vivace, con brio. Godspeed. Safe travel. Happy returns. And I am grateful that there’s a website to whom I can offer a retrospective review.