De Waart and NZSO: Brilliant Mozart two piano concerto and epic Mahler performance

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart
Piano duo: Christina and Michelle Naughton

Mozart: Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat, K.365
Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 Apr, 6:30 pm

For me, two of Mozart’s most beguiling works have adjacent numbers in the Köchel catalogue: the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (K 364) and the Concerto for two pianos (K 365), meaning that scholars believed they were written about the same time, 1779. Certainly, they have both been deeply embedded in my affections, perhaps through the performances I first heard.

This was a little before Mozart’s leaving Salzburg for Vienna (around the same time as he wrote the flute concertos, the Coronation Mass, the Posthorn Serenade, Symphony No 33, the Solemn Vespers). It was the last piano concerto, numbered 10, written in Salzburg; next came the first three in Vienna, Nos 11, 12 and 13, in 1782, the first of the 17 truly mature and immortal piano concertos.

Mozart’s instrumentation varied. What we heard from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under  their music director Edo de Waart, was Mozart’s original score which he played with his sister, Nannerl; it involved, as well as usual strings, only pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns. Mozart revised it later when he played it with a pupil, adding pairs of clarinets and trumpets. The string numbers were interesting too: instead of the usual declining numbers through violins to basses, De Waart employed eight each of first and second violins, and violas; I couldn’t see all the cellos but suspect there were 6, and probably 2 basses. I wondered whether De Waart had employed these numbers to create a fuller sound in the middle range, to balance with the weight of two pianos.

The orchestral introduction was elegant and deeply felt, with flowing rhythms; its character was complementary to the pianos which entered boldly, but quickly subsided to a delicate, rather affecting mood. Rather than pitting them against each other, the main feature of their playing is an almost uncanny interweaving of lines, sharing the music with beguiling charm, often taking over from each other mid-phrase, and ensuring that it was never possible to feel that one was the ‘primo’, the other ‘secondo’, as is usual with duets.

The major attraction was of course, the piano duo, Christina and Michelle Naughton: twin sisters, aged 28, born in Princeton, New Jersey of European/Chinese ancestry. They grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and their musical education was at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. They occupy the sort of place among duo pianists enjoyed for several decades by the Labèque sisters. They lack nothing in musicianship, technical skill and interpretive insight.

The second movement, Andante, prolonged the sense of elegance, the pianos often elaborately decorating and echoing the orchestral lines through the long melodies. Till the pianos eventually came to dominate in an extended cadenza-like episode in which the orchestra re-joins just before the end. It seemed like a magical introduction to the spirited, optimistic mood of the Rondo with its long curving lines that the two pianists adorned with tasteful ornaments. They led the confident fugal passage in a playfully rhetorical fashion, that seemed to mock the expectation of a portentous finale.

The whole was far more than the sum of its parts however, as it was obvious throughout that we were hearing a couple of immaculate pianists who performed, as was repeated in promotional material, as if one, each seeming to process her part through the same mind and hands, neither seeking pre-eminence, and creating the feeling that each felt as if merely a half of a single instrument.

Their encore was something of a curiosity and a surprise. No doubt encore pieces for piano duo are thin on the ground: this was Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos – based Paganini’s 24th Caprice, by Lutosławski. The other pianist when it was written in 1941 was composer Panufnik who had also remained in Warsaw during the war and they played it in the city under horrendous German occupation (read Panufnik’s gripping autobiography, Composing Myself). They survived the terrible months in late 1944 when Soviet forces remained passively on the east bank of the Vistula, making no move to defend Warsaw while the German forces destroyed the city; it suited Soviet anti-Polish policies.
One YouTube listener to a performance of the piece by Argerich and Kissin remarked “époustouflant!” The Naughton sisters played it from memory; “époustouflant!” indeed!

I was surprised to see a few empty seats after the interval (it had looked a very full house before), as the Mahler approached. Fancy forgoing the chance to hear, not just an ordinary performance but what emerged after 70 minutes as a superb, emotionally elaborate and intellectually sophisticated creation.

There are trumpet fanfares and trumpet fanfares, and this was the latter, if you see what I mean. Michael Kirgan was flawless: flamboyant perhaps, but arresting, heroic, while at the same time relaxed. The fanfare foreshadowed the spirit and narrative of this, perhaps most familiar of all the symphonies. Then the grand yet melancholy tone of the strings prompted anticipation of the momentous epic that was to follow.

Mahler linked the first two movements as Part I, and he treated the last two similarly, as Part III. Apart from the thematic connections between movements that might have been fairly uncommon before his time, there seems little reason today to think of the work as other than in five movements.

The second movement is marked Sturmische bewegt, mit grosser Vehemenz; De Waart opened with ferocity and vehemence as instructed, while later his orchestra depicted an extraordinary calm, with feathery emotions dominated by beautiful woodwinds, alternating with passages from strings expressing a returning disquiet, and turbulent passages that probably taxed the brass but emerge flawless.

The middle movement, Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast) hardly complied with the instruction to express strength; its scherzo character, its luminosity seemed to predominate, and there are charming dance-like episodes of string pizzicato, dreamy horns and woodwinds. Its triple time certainly lends itself to suggestions of the Ländler and the Waltz: whether that it amounts to ‘social commentary on excess’, as the programme notes suggest, bears consideration…

The audience seemed to sigh at its recognition of the arrival of the beautiful Adagietto; and its mood was indeed one of inconsolable sadness, while never losing itself in weakness or lacking in a feeling of profound humanity. Scored for only strings and harp, there were many beautiful passages for those instruments to express poignancy and reflectiveness.

The last movement, Rondo, follows the course prescribed by Mahler: Allegro-Allegro giocoso. Frisch (lively); and there is much delicate, pastoral scoring, initially for strings, gently becoming ‘giocoso’ with horns, oboes, trumpets and the rest, all immaculately played. And a longish fugal section that is the vehicle for dancing and gaiety rather than for musical seriousness.

Not only was this a wonderful performance that would have converted any Mahler sceptic (and the slight thinning of the audience suggests they still exist), but would have left even the most confirmed or blasé listener with a renewed feeling of wonderment and optimism, overcoming for the moment, disquiet at all the world’s increasing turbulence and horrors. Mahler might have lived during a period of relative international peace and temporary personal happiness, yet there was, nevertheless, in this most sanguine, as well as tumultuous of symphonies, material for listeners to this magnificent performance a century or more later to experience a huge range of external and personal emotions, both grieving and ecstatic.


Anderson and Roe Piano Duo – a compelling and invigorating mix of gravitas and glitter!

Anderson and Roe Piano Duo

Arrangements for two pianos/four hands of music by Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Georges Bizet

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe (pianos)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th March, 2018

Duo pianists Anderson and Roe are very much the products of the millennial age, two accomplished graduates from the Juilliard School of Music who make music together out of a shared vision of wanting “to strengthen and make more relevant the place of classical music in the new millennium”. They’ve been playing as a duo for fourteen years, now, and intend to continue to do so, along with keeping their own solo careers ticking over. Despite some of their extremely physical duo-pianistic interactions on stage, they’re not real-life partners (Greg Anderson is married, but to someone else, while Elizabeth Joy Roe is unmarried).  However, they both enjoy the physical choreography and intimacy of four-hands at one piano as much as their two-piano work, and don’t ever stint on the intensity and overt emotionalism and sensuality of the music they play together. In Roe’s own words,“This whole partnership arose out of a pure desire to have a joyful time together, to try new things and just to keep exploring what’s possible with presentation and execution.”

I must confess to some initial hesitation regarding reviewing the concert, prior to finding out anything about the pair’s performance and musical philosophies, and reading only the usual “hype springs eternal” publicity blurb. I thought that the experience might involve spending an evening enduring a relentless onslaught of  empty and facile double-pianistic note-spinning arrangements – something to which I have a definite aversion, particularly those “display” concerti that proliferated during the nineteenth century, which enabled performers to “show off” their virtuosic skills over endless sequences of brilliant-sounding nothings! Happily Anderson and Roe’s playing bore out the many positive reports I was able to read from different sources, indicating that their partnership was something definitely out of the ordinary.

These feelings were certainly reinforced by my finding out details of the actual repertoire they were going to perform for us, a programme which appeared to alternate the virtuosic element with the profound and poetic. Thus we in the audience were able to gauge their abilities over a wider spectrum than was perhaps expected. True, there were no “big” duo-pianist works such as any by Schubert or Rachmaninov in the concert, which I counted as an opportunity missed. However there was sufficient gravitas and depth in what they played acting as a counterweight to the equally enjoyable arrangements of “popular” music which emphasised humour and brilliance.

They had what I think is an overall philosophy of performing, which they were able to apply to everything they did – this was to throw themselves entirely into each of the item’s particular world of expression,  and adopt ways of bringing out the essentials of whatever piece. However, in doing this they became chameleon-like in their different kinds of treatment of each of the works, so that we in the audience felt transported to each “space” inhabited by the composer of the original music. I got the feeling that they wanted to pay homage to each of these creative acts by bringing out the individual “character” of the pieces – in the event, most successfully.

Throughout the concert both musicians attached particular importance to talking with us, taking it in turn to introduce the pieces, bring out salient points and underline any significant and illuminating association the pair might have previously had with any parts of the programme.

Of course, the visual aspect of a piano duo or duet  (the pair played two pianos simultaneously, and occasionally a four-handed duo on a single piano, changing instruments and seating positions for each of the items) wasn’t neglected, and there were plenty of virtuoso thrills and the occasional amusing antic involving intertwining arms and bodies to reach the keys – but these were entertainment incidentals rather than essences, which didn’t divert them from the more serious purpose of doing the music justice. In short, I felt they made sure the concert was primarily about the music, rather than about them, and I loved their playing all the more for that.

Obviously the pair’s virtuosity was a key component in the presentation of the more serious music as well, and came to the fore in the nonchalance with which they threw off some of the difficulties of things like the opening Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein, as well as the ease with which they set in motion the ebb and flow of the different sequences from the same composer’s “West Side Story” at the second half’s beginning (they even got us joining in with the shouts of “Mambo” during the first section of that work – our first unison attempt was a bit ragged, but with Roe’s expert semaphoring as a guide, the second shout of “Mambo!” we delivered was one to die for!).

That “character” which the pair imbued in every piece they played came to the fore in heartfelt fashion during the first half’s sequence of arrangements using material with a kind of Gospel-song ethos, from John Adams’ “Halleluiah Junction”, through the treatment accorded Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah”, and finishing with a redemptive-like take on Paul McCartney’s inspirational “Let it be”. Regarding the last of those items, Roe had set the tone for our listening by inviting us to join in with her singing of McCartney’s opening melody and words (her voice extremely lovely in its own right), before the two pianists opened up the vistas (the accompanying note used the phrase “duelling Gospel pianists”!), powerfully suggesting a revivalist kind of fervour to illuminate the music’s message.

Another highlight for me was the deeply-felt and serenely spell-binding performance of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the composer’s opera “Orphee et Euridice”, which, significantly, the pair chose to resent as a four-hands duet at one keyboard rather than use the bigger two-piano sonorities. That kind of wide-screen sound was restored for the concert’s final scheduled item, the pair’s own exploration of themes and sequences from Bizet’s opera “Carmen”, here given with all the sensuous atmosphere, colour and rhythmic swagger and excitement that we all associate with Bizet’s score. There were several encores afterwards, but Bizet’s music made an appropriately brilliant climax to the programme, which had the audience clapping and bravo-ing for more, the pair generous in response, and leaving us replete with a sense of occasion.






Chamber Music New Zealand hosts exciting concert by pianos and percussion

Chamber Music New Zealand: “Rhythm and Resonance”

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K 448; Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Guldborg); Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. Ptaszynska)

Diedre Irons and Michael Endres – pianos; Thomas Guldborg and Lenny Sakovsky – percussion

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 26 August, 7:30 pm

This step outside the usual range of string-dominant chamber music attracted a big house in the Michael Fowler Centre; the welcome by CEO Euan Murdoch also suggested that a larger number of younger people had been drawn by this programme, with its less familiar instrumental context, yet of major works.

And he drew attention to the use of an overhead camera that projected a bird’s eye view of the array of instruments – mainly the percussion – on the stage.

But the concert began with the only sonata that Mozart wrote for two pianos (the only other piece for two pianos is a Fugue in C minor, K 426). It’s a magnificent richly melodic masterpiece that responded whole-heartedly to treatment by four hands on two Steinways – the thought of any possible advantage from fortepianos never entered my head. The performance exploited the sonic possibilities of two instruments without producing sounds that were too dense or cluttered.

The two instruments were lined up side by side rather than facing each other with their bodies curling intimately together; so the primo player (in this case Diedre Irons) was visually dominant. The two have not dissimilar approaches to performance, devoted to playing of clarity and vigour as well as a scrupulous treatment of the varying dynamics. Even more impressive was their subtle rhythmic elasticity which, from the very percussive nature of the piano, poses a considerable challenge for two players: mere ensemble is hard enough.

In brief, this was music of genius played by two pianists who were virtually flawless in ensemble and musical spirit, and their performance entranced me from start to finish. There are so many beguiling phases, among the most charming the exquisite trill-opened motifs near the beginning of the Andante which were crystal clear yet imbued with magic.

The performance of Ravel’s Tombeau might have surprised an audience unprepared for the arrangement of the stage, pianos removed, leaving it dominated by three marimbas to be played by the two NZSO percussionists. From the start I found myself quite accepting of the altered quality of the music: much as I love the piano original, I am particularly partial to the marimba. Yet I wondered whether there might have been some monotony in the sound after a while. But that was at least partly avoided as Sakofsky moved, at the beginning of the Forlane, from the marimba at right angles to the audience, to one facing the audience, that produced a somewhat brighter, keen-edged tone. The spirit of Ravel survived excellently, since the eight mallets flourished by the players seemed to encompass all the notes in the piano score.

After the interval there were further re-arrangements: marimbas moved to the rear and xylophones, along with tam tam, side and bass drums, timpani and cymbals filled the stage. Oddly, this was one of the first truly ‘modern’ pieces of classical music I came to know through the small but curious collection that my girl-friend (later my wife) brought to our joint LP collection when we were about 21. It’s one of those works that seems to sound just as shocking and barbaric now as it did then (and that performance, an Argo recording paired with Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet, still surprises me by its violent sounds and extreme dynamic contrasts).

What we heard on Tuesday was rather more well-mannered and less fierce. In addition, the big acoustic of the MFC subdues the harshness and acerbity of extreme sounds, and it was no doubt the more civilised sound that the four players produced that allowed the audience to enjoy this classic of modernity as they evidently did, judging from the applause. I think it loses little with less hard-edged sound and brutalism and that was the way it came off the stage; though it would have been too much to ask that such music be flawless in togetherness and finesse.

Incidentally, instead of being on the medium level stage as earlier chamber music concerts, including the Houstoun Beethoven concerts, had been, these performances which involved more instruments were at the usual high level of the stage which makes visibility difficult for the front dozen rows – hence the usefulness of the view from above, projected on the screen.

The last item had not been on the advertised programme or otherwise conspicuously announced: Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is shorter than other famous treatments of this piece (Paganini’s 24th violin Caprice), though there are about twelve variations (the programme note did not disclose and that was my slightly uncertain count).  Lutoslawski wrote it in the early years of the war in German-occupied Warsaw, when he and Panufnik lived by playing piano duets in cabarets (for a revelatory account of that, read Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself). It was about the only one of Lutoslawski’s pieces to survive the horrendous German onslaught on Warsaw to put down the famous Warsaw uprising, as the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula and did nothing to support the Polish resistance.

What we heard was an arrangement of the two-piano original commissioned by the Danish Safri Duo, made not by the composer, but by Polish Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska. Compared with that original, I have to confess to finding the percussion additions a little superfluous. The original, which contains echoes of the Rachmaninov version, is sufficiently percussive and the addition of percussion instruments seemed to reduce the unique impact of the two pianos which, in good hands has all the brilliance, excitement and visceral scariness that is needed to bring a concert like this to a thrilling, hire-wire climax.

To hear and see what I mean, look at You Tube for a recent performance by Anastasia and Liubov Gromoglasova in Moscow. However, that is a small matter alongside the otherwise brilliant exhibition of skill and musicality that these four splendid musicians demonstrated in all four works. I had the very clear impression of a delighted audience leaving the MFC at the end.