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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intermezzi from Brahms via Michael Houstoun and Rattle Records

BRAHMS – Complete Intermezzi for solo piano
Michael Houstoun (piano)
RATTLE Records RAT-D131-2022
Producer : Kenneth Young
Recording Engineer : Steve Garden

This beautifully-appointed Rattle disc’s serial number finishes with the tell-tale date 2022, one which inspires a tale piquantly framed by yours truly as a poor excuse, but one nevertheless linked to positive outcomes. At the time this disc came into my possession I was in hospital recovering from heart surgery; and its frequent playing on my trusty disc-player during my convalescence would definitely have contributed greatly to the restoration of my well-being! Almost two years later, the only less-than-positive association I can think of linking my medical experience with these musical sounds is the time I’ve taken to get back to the disc and write this review!

The music on this recording consists solely of pieces from Brahms’ later piano music, cherry-picking those pieces known as “Intermezzi”. They’re typical examples of the composer’s ever-increasing disinclination towards “display” or “virtuosity” in his piano writing in these later works. On first hearing of the set as a whole I found myself wondering whether the pieces (all with this title which in a very Brahmsian way can be taken to mean “neither one thing nor the other”) would work together as a popular choice for all music-lovers. And then, upon playing the final bracket of those beautiful works taken from Brahms’s Op.119, I remembered all over again that my first-ever Brahms piano recording (a 21st Birthday present!) was of the legendary Richard Farrell playing the whole of the Op.119 set, with three out of the four pieces themselves having the title “Intermezzo”.

This time it was, of course, another New Zealand pianist, Michael Houstoun, bringing those Op.119 pieces to life for me once again, at the conclusion of this remarkable journey. Regarding qualities such as beauty of tone, range of expression, sense of character and depth of feeling I’ve not heard more remarkable or arresting playing from this pianist as here – under his fingers each of the pieces one encounters throughout the disc straightaway proclaims its individuality and sense of purpose to an absorbing degree, inspiring more thoughts and reactions to this music than on previous hearings I for one had bargained for.

On this disc the items are placed in compositional order, beginning with the Intermezzi from Op.79, then by turns Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119. It’s a sequence that makes sense, particularly as the pieces themselves exhibit a degree of variety along the way that richly rewards the listener. Not all have pure and simple beauty as their raison d’etre – while some ravish, others engage for different reasons, in certain cases exhibiting a quixotic spirit, while others strike a more sombre, and even tragic note. A couple show the influence of Schumann, and one or two contain for this listener foreshadowings of sounds for a later time. In short, the collection as a whole gives up much more than the title of “Intermezzi” might lead one to expect.

The disc’s first item, No. 3 from Brahms’s Op.76, is an enchanting Gracioso (the sounds uncannily predating something as far removed from the composer’s world as Anatole Liadov’s 1893 piece “A Musical Snuff-Box!”), here bright and sparkling at the beginning, then deep and sonorous in the alternating passages. It’s followed by the Schumannesque No.4 from the same set, an Allegretto grazioso whose sombre melody reminded me of the earlier composer’s Fantasiestücke pieces. And with the second of the later Op.117 set pf pieces I was again put in mind of Brahms’ great mentor, Schumann, and his Kreisleriana by this quixotic amalgam of flowing melody and chordal elaboration.

Two of the Op.116 pieces give voice to the composer’s “quixotic” side, the balladic No. 2 in A Minor, with its quasi-portentous opening, its agitated figurations which follow and its return to the seriousness of the opening; followed by a favourite of mine, a piece which refracts a lovely “improvisatory” feeling throughout, so beautifully and patiently caught by the pianist. Then, somewhat curiously, there’s the dotted-rhythmed No.5 in E Minor Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento, (with grace and very intimate feeling) in which Houstoun at a brisker-than usual pace brings out the almost zany angularities of the harmonies rather than the “dreamy” feeling of the piece as described by Clara Schumann.

Then, there are the out-and-out beauties, amongst Brahms most-loved piano pieces, such as Op.117 No.1 in E-flat Major Andante Moderato, and Op.118 No. 2, the latter favoured by soloists as an “encore” to a concerto performance – here, Brahms remarkably uses a similar three note pattern at the outset to Liszt’s in the latter’s “Spozalizio” (from Book 2 of “Annees de Pelerinage”). Brahms of course builds a completely different kind of structure, at the piece’s heart working “backwards” from the original theme by inversion in a remarkably beautiful way. A middle minor-key section is almost a story in itself when the melody is changed most beguilingly to the major for a short while, then reiterates its feeling in the minor key once more – and almost without a break the three-note opening returns, beautifully “integrated “ by Houstoun, and allowed to express its voice with no undue emphasis – a truly fine performance!

And there’s the enigmatic Op.119 selection at the very end, of course, beginning with the group’s dream-like opening Adagio. Brahms here seems to allow his improvisatory instincts full voice, beginning the piece, for example with a single-strand idea filled with wonderment, and then “growing” its capacities so that they permeate throughout the keyboard’s expressive range, And how beautifully and almost artlessly that single idea blossoms and informs the line’s descent towards its destiny, leaving us with as much promise as fulfilment. Houstoun’s playing of this on first hearing sounded from memory to my ears on a par, as I’ve said, with Farrell’s similarly poetic and philosophical approach.

The second piece, Andante un poco agitato, is another wonderful piece, beginning with angst-ridden figurations whose energies grow and build to the point where they tumble over one another – I like Houstoun’s bringing out the almost bardic spreading of the chords at various “pointed” moments, quixotically blending a sense of emotion “felt” and “relayed”, and continuing this feeling right throughout the more agitato passages – and then, how meltingly beautiful he makes the more lyrical, major-key way with the same figurations! The opening is recapitulated, before the coda reintroduces the major-key transformation as a kind of “leave-taking” to the piece as a whole.

Then, with No.3 in C Major, Grazioso e giocoso – well, what a sunny, whimsical and totally ingratiating way to end the recital! – at the outset, Houstoun emphasises the higher chordal right- handed notes rather than the underlying melody, giving the piece more of a “chattering” quality! But like his great Kiwi compatriot before him, Houstoun brings out the piece’s delightfully “knowing” innocence, as if Brahms is here saying “Who, me? – write symphonies?” – an aspect which belies the mastery of the whole, and brings the musical journey to a most satisfying conclusion.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Menzies and Michael Endres – linking worlds with violin and piano

Wellington Chamber Music presents
THE MENZIES/ENDRES DUO – Music by Schubert, Schnittke, Fisher and Beethoven

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Rondo in B Minor “Rondo Brilliant”
ALFRED SCHNITTKE – Violin Sonata No. 2 (quasi una sonata)
SALINA FISHER – Mono no aware
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer”

Mark Menzies (violin) and Michael Endres (piano)

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

Sunday, 18th June, 2023

This was a well structured, interesting programme, culminating in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, perhaps the greatest of violin sonatas. The programme notes the connection of the works on the programme to this Sonata and Beethoven: the main theme of Schubert’s Rondo has reference to the first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, while Schnittke’s Sonata echoes the structure of  Beethoven’s Op 27 piano sonatas, “quasi una fantasia”. This may be a little far fetched, but undoubtedly the programme built up to the climax of Beethoven, while exploring a range of musical idioms in the violin and piano repertoire.

Franz Schubert Rondo in B minor ‘Rondo Brilliant’

Schubert wrote this work for the Czech violinist Josef Slavik. The latter was compared in his circles to Paganini, and was a friend of Schubert. Schubert was essentially a composer of songs, not one noted for the elaborate structures of his works. This piece has beautiful melodic passages interposed with virtuoso displays. It is joyful music, with suggestions of rustic wind band music in places, but ultimately it was not an entirely convincing reading, being very difficult to bring off. In the dialogues between the violin and the piano, some of the nuances of the exchamges were lost. The placing of the violinist with his back to the pianist didn’t help in places, with the voicings not being ideally balanced.

Alfred Schnittke Violin Sonata No 2 (quasi una sonata)

Schnittke’s Second Violin Sonata is a very challenging work, both for the musicians and the audience.  It opens with powerful, discordant chords, separated by precisely timed pauses. This section is followed by a number of distinct episodes, with references to past musicians, from Bach through Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, to Shostakovitch, though to the listener, hearing the sonata for the first time, none of this is obvious. What is clear is the unrelenting drama, the thought provoking process that pose questions about the nature of music. The musicians have to perform actions that are not part of the normal skill sets of violinists or pianists, free ranging glissandos, unpitched tremolos, drum-like chords.

To add to the drama, one of the strings snapped on the violin. Mark Menzies stopped, walked off the stage, came back with the violin re-strung, carried on, and resumed where had left off. This sonata is one of the masterpieces of the post-Soviet Russian era, but it requires vast preparation and deep understanding. The performance was a true partnership between violin and piano, and whatever misgivings one might have had about the balance of the two instruments in the first work no longer applied.

Salina Fisher Mono no aware

This was a peaceful contrast to the drama of Schnittke’s work. It is a calm ethereal piece of music, simple on the surface, plaintive, a meditation on nature. Is it about the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms, an awareness of their fragility and their inherent impermanence, as the composer says in her notes, or is it just a sequel of lovely sounds? It was a “breather” in the midst of an afternoon of intense music.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata No 9 ‘Kreutzer’

This is, arguable, the greatest violin and piano sonata ever written. It marked the beginning of what is at times termed, Beethoven’s ‘middle period’, beyond the elegant music of the period of Mozart and Haydn, pointing to an era of more expressive, more emotional, romantic music of the years of his Third and Fifth Symphonies. Beethoven had gone deaf, his life was in turmoil, and he wrote some of his most profound music. The Kreutzer foreshadowed the Waldsdtein and Appassionata sonatas, the Rasumovsky quartets. The sonata is so well known that it is a special challenge for performers not to make it just another Kreutzer, to fathom its meaning in their own individual way. Menzies and Endres started with a leisurely opening, flexible, lyrical. They brought out the grandeur and lyricism of the piece, playing it with a nice, controlled tempo. They had a grand conception of the work, bringing out its sublime beauty, particularly in the second, variation movement, with each variation sensitively articulated. The final movement was played with measured energy. It was a very fine performance and both players appeared to share its enjoyment.

For an encore they returned to Schubert with an arrangement of Schubert’s Hark! Hark! The Lark!

This Sunday afternoon concert was notable for its range, the thought-provoking questions it raised about music. No one went home whistling the tunes from the Schnittke Sonata, or even Salina Fisher’s piece,  but everybody left on a high note after the Beethoven.

Both artists, Mark Menzies and Michael Endres, teach at Canterbury University. They both have established international careers.  Mark Menzies taught at the California Institute of the Arts, and gave violin and viola recitals in Los Angeles. He is an advocate of contemporary music, and tours widely.

Michael Endres performs worldwide as soloist and chamber music partner. He has played at festivals in Europe, America, and Asia, including the Beethoven Fest Bonn and the Salzburg Festival.

We are fortunate to have them here in New Zealand.

 

 

 

 

Breaking the piano recital drought – Michael Houstoun at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents Michael Houstoun (piano)

Bach Toccata in c minor BWV 911
Brahms Variation and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op 24
Chopin Berceuse, Op 57
                 Impromptu in F#, Op 36
Rachmaninoff Prelude in Eb, Op 23, No 2
Prelude in Eb, Op 23 No 6
                              Étude-tableau in  Eb minor, Op 39, No 5
                              Prelude in D, Op 23, No 4
                              Étude-tableau in C minor Op 33, No 3
                              Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 11 June 2023

 Piano recitals by renowned pianists, featuring major works of the piano repertoire, are now rare in Wellington. Paul Lewis, one of the leading pianists of his generation, dropped in for a concerto appearance with the NZSO, but though he has recorded all the Beethoven Sonatas and much of Schubert, he was not given the opportunity to play these in a solo recital – a sad state of affairs when one recalls from earlier times  the anticipated pleasure of hearing any visiting virtuoso in both the concerto repertoire with the NZSO and on the solo recital platform.

How grateful, therefore concert goers must be to the Waikanae Music Society for putting on solo concerts such as that recently given by Michael Houstoun. Michael Houstoun is something of an ‘Artist in Residence NZ’, widely recognized for his insightful recordings of the  Beethoven Sonatas and his series of concerts that featured Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. Notably, in this concert, he played also a bracket of works by Rachmaninoff, recognizing the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth and 80th anniversary of his death. However,the first half of the concert was Bach and Brahms.

Bach – Toccata in c minor BWV 911

This is a virtuoso piece that Bach wrote to show off his skills as a keyboard player. It starts with a playful theme, which evolves into a complex substantial fugue.  Houstoun shaped every note, every phrase with care. As a pianist he had complete mastery, but it is the thought behind the notes that stood out, how the work was built up, note by note.

Brahms – Variation and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op 24

This is one of the monumental works of the piano repertoire, 25 variations on a simple theme that Handel employed for his set of variations. But Brahms’ work is on a much grander scale. It ranges from the whimsical, the simple, playful, to the dramatic, culminating in the fugue that asks profound questions about the meaning of life. It is a mirror of life’s journey with all its various facets. It is Brahms’ tribute to an earlier, courtly age, yet reflecting the deep thoughtful romantic vision of his time. Houstoun weighted every note. His playing of the fugue, the climax of the work, was restrained, he left its grandeur to the imagination of the listener. It was a beautifully articulated playing. One may hear different interpretations of this work, but probably never a more disciplined and clear reading. It was a memorable performance.

Chopin – Berceuse, Op 57 , Impromptu in F#, Op 36

Again, in these well-known pieces every sound was clearly defined. Houstoun left it up to the listener to seek out the magic, the emotion. Both of the works were carefully shaped, with a lot of thought behind every note.

Rachmaninoff – Prelude in Bb, Op 23, No 2,   Prelude in Eb, Op 23 No 6
Étude-tableau in  Eb minor, Op 39, No 5,   Prelude in D, Op 23, No 4
Étude-tableau in C minor Op 33, No 3
,   Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9

These works, both early and middle-period Rachmaninoff, are far less well known than his piano concertos, his Paganini Variations for piano and orchestra, his symphonies, or his big Choral works, but in this anniversary year of Rachmaninoff’s birth it was appropriate to have a glimpse of the pre-American Rachmaninoff, secluded on his estate. Houstoun selected these pieces carefully, three each from his Preludes and his longer  Étude-tableau and he performed them in two sections, suggesting that they formed complementary movements of two larger, sonata-like pieces.  Perhaps, as the program notes say, ‘Rachmaninoff was proud to follow in the footsteps of Chopin’, and these works in some ways harked back to the Chopin of Paris and French romanticism, but they also reflected a very different world, one which Rachmaninoff’s detractors would regularly claim his music refused to enter.

Listening to the first Prelude it was not Chopin, but Moussorgsky that came to mind, as also with the last Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9. These are passionate pieces, but Houstoun played them with characteristic restraint. Not for him the dramatic climaxes, or the swaying emotions – “Just look at the notes, boy, play it as it written!” he seemed to be saying.

This was a fine and memorable concert. It left listeners with lots of thoughts about the meaning of the music that they had just heard. We are fortunate to have Michael Houstoun here as a pillar of New Zealand musical life. He made his listener think not only about the music’s emotions, but also the creative processes reflected by the notes on paper, and from the black and white keys of the piano, from and upon which he gave us his unique interpretations of the music.

Michael Houstoun will be back again later this year, on 27 August, playing with the violinist Bella Hristova in an interesting program of sonatas by Poulenc, Ravel and Fauré.

 

A concert of “music from then and now” with the NZSO

Legacy – The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Stephen de Pledge (Piano)
Alexander Shelley (Conductor)

Gillian Whitehead retrieving the fragility of peace
Mozart Piano Concerto No, 20 in D Minor, K466
Brahms Symphony No, 1 in C Minor Op. 68

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 1 October 2022

This was a concert that spanned almost two and a half centuries, from Gillian Whitehead’s work commissioned by the NZSO and receiving its first performance during this series of concerts, through Mozart’s most popular piano concerto written in 1785, and culminating with Brahms’ First S ymphony of 1876. I found it a collection of works that asked questions about the nature of music, and what this music meant to people of their time and also to audiences at present.

Gillian Whitehead retrieving the fragility of peace

Gillian Whitehead is one of the doyens of New Zealand composers. Over her long and distinguished career she has drawn on the European Modernist tradition, but she has also mined her Maori heritage. Three years ago the NZSO commissioned her to write a piece, Turanga Nui, commemorating Cook’s landing on these shores in 1769. Now, a new work,  Retrieving the fragility of peace, commissioned by the NZSO for this tour, uses a similar soundscape, using the resources of a large orchestra to capture the sounds of the forest, its bird songs, and perhaps the thumping rhythms that suggest haka, war dance.

Forget conventions such as extended melodies and themes – this piece is about the basic ingredients of music, sound, tones, beat and silences. It challenges the listener, steeped in a European classical musical tradition to sit up and listen. There are instrumental interludes of sheer beauty – an extended cor anglais solo, for example, and  a cello solo – flute, winds, brass and a wide range of percussion and string sounds add colour, but significantly, it is silences that define the piece. It ends in silence, a pause over a few bars, a few seconds. The war dance resolves into peace. It has a distinctive beauty of its own.

Mozart Piano Concerto No, 20 in D Minor, K466

Over a period of two years Mozart wrote 11 concertos, most for his series of subscription concerts in Vienna, making use of the new developments of the piano. Of these, only two are in a minor key, D Minor K466, No. 20 and C Minor K491, No. 24, written in the following year. The D Minor concerto was, and probably still is, the most popular of Mozart’s concertos, foreshadowing the later romantic concertos of Beethoven and other composers. It starts with a haunting phrase repeated, calling to mind the final scene of Don Giovanni, an opera that was written two years later.

The soloist who was expected to play at this concert was the Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, but in the event she was unavailable, isolating after contracting Covid. At short notice the Auckland pianist, Stephen de Pledge was called upon to replace her. In no way did this seem to disadvantage Wellington. Stephen de Pledge played at a relaxed, expansive tempo which let the music breath. The dramatic first movement was followed by a lyrical extended song of the second movement that his sensitive playing did justice to. The unhurried last movement was a fitting climax to the concert, its dark shadow already there in Mozart’s imagination. A notable feature of this performance was de Pledge’s use of additional ornamentation, which seemed very appropriate to the piece. He also improvised his own cadenzas, with echoes of Mozart’s operas and even of Beethoven, who wrote a cadenza that is widely used. The orchestra supported the soloist with precise yet sensitive responses. For an encore de Pledge played Schumann’s Traumerei,  a very personal, romantic reading of which Schumann would have approved.

Brahms Symphony No, 1 in C Minor Op. 68

Brahms had written a number of large scale orchestral works before writing his first symphony. The shadow of Beethoven loomed large and he had to write something that followed Beethoven’s tradition, yet was different and uniquely his. This symphony is, like the Mozart Concerto, in a minor key. Brahms had a grand vision, a work with a confluence, a mosaic, of short themes that developed into overarching subjects to fill out symphonic sonata form. His musical language was that of the North German choral tradition. The coalescence of these themes created a rich many-layered sound, and in a less clearly-focused performance these individual themes could have got lost, overwhelmed by the main theme, – however, the mark of this performance was that every little nuance came through clearly, the competing themes carefully balanced. The first movement is a dialogue between an overtly military theme and a tranquil subject. The second movement is an extended chorale embellished by a beautiful flute solo, then a plaintive melody played by the strings. This movement is one of the most exquisite pieces of music in the symphonic repertoire. The third movement has the feel of a dark German song on which the rest of the movement elaborates. It is all a long way from the cheerful, lighthearted third movements, Minuet and Trios, of earlier symphonies. The final movement is the conclusion, the summation of the previous movements. The horns, winds, call to mind the Wagnerian sound. Then the Allegro con brio introduces the triumphal final theme, a theme that brings to mind Beethoven’s Ninth. And there, in the horns, there is a synergy with the trumpet calls of Gillian Whitehead’s piece that the concert started with.

It was a beautiful, clear, measured performance. If there were some slight inaccuracies that some picked up, these were completely lost amid the overpowering beautiful playing. The audience responded with a spontaneous ovation that you seldom hear at the end of the symphony. There was a general sense of elation, with people walking out at the end of the concert on a high, with the music ringing in their ears.

Heartland of the Romantic Piano Repertoire – Michael Endres at Waikanae

Michael Endres (piano)

SCHUBERT Drei Klavierstück, D 946

LISZT Rhapsodie Espagnole, S 254

SCHUMANN Kreisleriana, Opus 16

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 18th  September 2022

A solo piano recital featuring the heartland of the romantic piano repertoire, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann, is very rare indeed in Wellington. International luminaries flit in occasionally, play a concerto with an orchestra and flit our again, and the solid works that were once the rock foundation of piano recitals are just no longer heard. We must therefore be grateful to the organizers of the Waikanae Music Society for engaging Michael Endres for this recital. We in Wellington have not had the opportunity to hear him recently, though, going through the reviews on Middle C, I see that he has played in Waikanae a number of times over the years. Part of the problem is, of course, that we don’t have a suitable hall in Wellington at present, nor a piano that can compare with Waikanae’s magnificent Fazioli.

Michael Endres has world-wide reputation, has made a number of recordings, and a range of his concerts and recordings can be accessed on YouTube, and he has made the very sensible decision to move to Christchurch.

He started this recital with Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces). Schubert wrote this in the last year of his all too short life, a year in which he wrote some of his greatest works including some of his monumental sonatas. This, however is a work on a much more modest scale. It is like a set of three Impromptus, and it is the more personal, moving for that. Endres brought out its understated lyrical charm and its sometimes innocent child-like quality. He brought out the contrasts, the drama and the gentle melodies. His sensitive playing did justice to the music, that flowed like songs, much like Schubert’s accompaniments to his songs, and underlying it all was a touch of nostalgia, very much part of this music.

Schubert was followed by Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. This was a striking contrast to the self-effacing modest mood of the Schubert work. Liszt’s piece is based on two Spanish dances that he had heard during the time he had spent in Spain and Portugal in 1845, La Folia de Espagnol and Jota, It is a dazzling bravura work. Endres did justice to the virtuosity of the piece. He exercised great control, while bringing out the elements of sheer fun. He let the music breath, playing it with natural fluency, straight from the heart.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schumann, the central figure of romantic music. It started with Kreisleriana, Opus 16, It is a series of eight contrasting fantasy-like pieces in which Schumann attempted to encapsulate the constant swings of moods of Kappellmeister Kreisler, a character in E. T. A. Hoffman’s novel, something that must have been close to Schumann’s heart. He wrote these pieces in the course of just four days in 1838. Hoffman’s Kreisler was an eccentric musician at odds with the world around him, half crazed and intensely passionate. This might have meant something very personal for him with his own issues of mental balance. In the eight short pieces you hear the full gamut of moods and passions, but you also hear the power and musical resources of the piano. It is one of Schumann’s most popular piano pieces, and one is unlikely to ever hear a better performance of it then Endre’s, with its subtlety and sensitivity to the range of moods.

The concert ended with transcriptions of two of Schumann’s songs,  firstly Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower), transcribed by Clara Schumann, and,Frülingnacht (Spring Night),  transcribed by Liszt. 

For an encore Endres played a charming little piece Pensée Fugitive by Smetana.  It was a most satisfying and enjoyable concert. Come back again Michael Endres!

Yuka and Kemp – a concert of popular violin music

Wellington Chamber Music Society presents:

Yuka and Kemp – violin and piano

Elgar – Salut- d’Amour
Beethoven – Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Maria Theresia von Paradis – Sicilienne
Anthony Ritchie – Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Massenet – “Méditation” from Thaïs
William Kroll – Banjo and Fiddle
Handel – Sonata in D Major HWV371
Paganini (arr. R. Schumann) – Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Kreisler – Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
–   Liebesleid  / La Gitana
John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Monti – Csárdás

Yuka Eguchi (violin) and Kemp English (piano/organ)

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

Sunday, 10th July 2022

Yuka Eguchi is the Assistant Concert Master of the NZSO; Kemp English is a solo organist, a specialist in playing the fortepiano, and a collaborative pianist. The two put together a programme of violin music that most people know from such collections as the ‘best loved violin pieces’, but which are seldom featured in concert programmes. They are light, and lack substance that form the backbone of serious classical recitals, but  they are all immediately appealing.

Edward Elgar Salut d’Amour
The first item in the concert was Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, a popular salon piece that was Elgar’s engagement present to his future wife. It is lovely, personal, and melodious. The performance was not only notable for Yuka’s impeccable violin playing, but also for Kemp’s sensitive piano accompaniment.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Yuka and Kemp gave this much – loved Beethoven Sonata a straight forward reading. There is much to this piece, questions and answers, humour, and whimsy. The lyrical, gentle, extended song like slow movement, which is the heart of the work, is followed by a limping cheeky third movement. The final movement sums up the whole Sonata; this is what life is all about. Because the playing was so clear, there were details which came through which might have been glossed over in a less precise reading.

Maria Theresia von Paradis Sicilienne
Paradis was a pianist, blind, with a prodigious memory that she needed with no eyesight. She was a contemporary of Mozart whose concertos she played. She was a prolific composer and a teacher, but Sicilienne  that she is best remembered for was, not, in fact written by her. It is a musical hoax, composed by Samuel Dushkin,  –  a Polish American violinist, who worked with Stravinsky and William Schumann on their violin concertos. He also composed pieces under the names of largely forgotten composers such as Paradis and Benda. His Sicilienne is a charming, sentimental piece harking back to another era.

Anthony Ritchie Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Anthony Ritchie, a contemporary New Zealand composer and, Professor of Music at Otago University, is  best known for his symphonic works. Song for Minstrel, however, is a short work for violin. It starts with a violin solo of sheer beauty, followed by a jazzy development. Minstrel was a dog, not a person: the dog of the poet, Sam Hunt.

Jules Massenet Méditation from “Thaïs”
This popular work is the embodiment of a sentimental romantic age. Suspense awaits each note.

William Kroll Banjo and Fiddle
William Kroll was the leader of the Kroll Quartet, one of the great American string quartets of the 1950s and 1960s. He was an eminent teacher and chamber music player, but is perhaps best known for this short popular fiddle piece, capturing an American folksy idiom with something of a gypsy feel. It has a touch of Hollywood sentimentality. It is both showy and technically difficult.

George Frederick Handel Sonata in D Major HWV371
This sonata is Handel’s last piece of chamber music. It is rich music, evoking Handel’s operatic music, elegant, gallant. Kemp English sat down at the organ instead of the piano and played the keyboard part on the organ, which added a special effect to the piece. The organ made it sound grander, and the violin part more operatic. Like everything in this concert, it was different and illuminating.

Niccolò Paganini (arr. Robert Schumann) Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Paganini’s 24 Caprices for the violin are landmarks in the violin literature, and No. 24 is the best known of them all. It is such a compelling piece that Brahms, Rachmaninov, Boris Blacher, Chopin, Liszt, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Witold Lutoslawski, Karol Szymanowski, Eugéne Ysaÿe, Benny Goodman and many other composers have incorporated it in their work. Robert Schumann decided that a piano accompaniment would enhance the work – who are we, mortals in a later age, to argue with him? Yuka’s was certainly a virtuoso dazzling performance with Kemp quietly in the background on the piano.

Fritz Kreisler Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
Liebesleid / La Gitana
Fritz Kreisler was among the foremost violinists of his time, a generation before Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz rewrote people’s expectations of a violin virtuoso. After Heifetz Kreisler might have been considered old school. Much of his music is charming and gemütlich  evoking old-time Vienna as  in Liebesleid and La Gitana, (The Gypsy). The latter is full of exotic colours and flamenco-type rhythms. Both pieces are from a collection Kreisler published under the title of ‘Classical Manuscripts’. Some  pieces were attributed to Baroque composers, though all were his own compositions. Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice is something else, a truly challenging virtuoso piece in the tradition of Paganini, or for that matter, Ysaÿe, to whom the piece was dedicated. Yuka was undaunted by these challenges. Jaw-dropping stuff!

John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is a sorrowful Holocaust film and the music captures its deep unrequited sadness with its beautiful haunting melody.

Before she played the piece, Yuka said, that she dedicated it to Peter Barber, long time, colourful and much-loved member of the NZSO who passed away recently, and to Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated the day before this concert.

She also talked about her violin, made by Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi in 1766. one of the great luthiers of the golden age of violin making. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a wonderful tone. It was appropriate for Yuka to acknowledge her instrument in this violin recital for violinists.

Vittorio Monti Csárdás
With the final item in the concert we are back in the jubilant mood of the earlier part of the programme. Vittorio Monti was a Neapolitan composer. This is by far his best known work. It is a rhapsodical concert piece, written in 1904, and is based on the Csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. It is invigorating music, a showpiece for violinists.

The artists received a standing ovation, quite unusual for the sedate, elderly audience of Sunday afternoon concerts. The audience was rewarded with an encore of another lovable Fritz Kreisler piece, Rondino on a theme by Beethoven – and we all left happier for this afternoon of enchanting solo violin music music. Yuka and Kemp are wonderfully accomplished musicians. One wonders why we haven’t heard them before in Wellington.

 

An Eastern European smorgasbord at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

Music for Cello & Piano from Eastern Europe

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano  (1898)

Witold Lutoslawski Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano (1981)

Bohuslav Martinů Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano.  (1941)

Robert Ibell (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew on the Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

We are very fortunate in Wellington to have artists of the calibre of Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson. They are both very versatile musicians. Ibell is the cellist of the Aroha Quartet, a past member of the NZSO, and now he plays with a number of different ensembles. Rachel Thomson is an accompanist, associated with many local artists. They presented a program of largely unfamiliar works from Eastern Europe. I am giving here a brief account of this, their recent cello-and-piano recital  for the historical record.

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano

This is an early work of Suk. Ibell and Thomson gave the opening sombre Ballade plenty of emotion and intensity, following this with a playful Serenade. Both movements required soulful playing by cellist and pianist alike. They brought out the melodious, approachable character of the work most successfully.

Witold Lutoslawski:i Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano

This was written more than eighty years after the previous piece. A lot had happened to the world and music in those intervening years – two world wars, and the disintegration of the received ideas of what music should sound like. Lutoslawski uses the first four notes of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande which then becomes the metamorphoses, the transformation, the breakup of the notes into different rhythmic configurations. At the end of the piece the four-note configuration from Pelléas returns.  Ibell’s and Thomson’s playing rose splendidly to meet both the technical and musical challenges posed by this work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano

It’s good to hear Martinu’s music being played more frequently in concerts. This substantial sonata was written in 1941. The war was at its most brutal early stages, and Martinů’s Czechoslovakia was no more, causing him to seek refuge in the United States. He wrote this major work, which is essentially in the traditional three movements. The first movement is vigorous and energetic, the second is full of passionate longing with a gorgeous lyrical cello line, and the finale makes use of strong rhythms suggesting Bohemian peasant dances.

This, in tandem with the other works, made for a stimulating concert, and brought to us seldom performed music that was well worth hearing. I thought there was a real sense of fine partnership between Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson throughout. Their playing was thoroughly convincing demonstrating what sounded like real affinity with this repertoire. For their committed efforts these two musicians deserve our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Rhapsody and Rapture

Orchestra Wellington presents: RHAPSODY
BRAHMS – Alto Rhapsody
Contralto: Kristin Darragh
Male chorus Orpheus Choir
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor
Piano: Jian Liu
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Conductor: Marc Taddei
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th June, 2022

‘It’s all about Clara Schumann,’ said Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington’s conductor.

Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the wedding of Clara’s third daughter, Julie, in 1869. The second work on the programme was written by Clara Weick, as she then was, between the ages of 13 and 15. And Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 4, written in the first rapturous year of their marriage, has the word ‘Clara’ musically encoded throughout.

One thinks of Brahms as having always been middle-aged. I blame record sleeves for reproducing those very bearded photos from his fifties and early sixties – but he was an athletic, handsome, blond twenty-year-old when he first met the Schumanns. He was still a handsome man of 36, blond and beardless, when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The programme notes described the work as ‘a rather odd wedding present’. Odd indeed – it seems to be full of the pain Brahms felt on hearing of Julie’s forthcoming wedding. At the
age of 26 he had been engaged to Agathe von Siebold, but the engagement was broken off. Ten years later he began to fall in love with Julie Schumann, then aged 24, but did not declare himself. When the news of her engagement arrived, he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The work is a setting of part of a long poem by Goethe, ‘Harzreise im Winter’, from his Sturm und Drang period, about the loneliness of a man climbing in the Harz mountains in winter. ‘Who heals the pains of one for whom balm has turned to poison?’, it begins. The answer
seems to be: ‘No one. Get over it. Music helps.’

The sombre opening chords are from the lower brass; then the texture thickens. The first two stanzas are in C minor, with a shift to C major in the third. Kristen Darragh’s first entry imitated the dark sound of the lower strings. Although the programme described her as a contralto, the biographical note called her a mezzo-soprano. She has qualities of both: a very beautiful bright higher register, with lots of power lower down. The orchestra provided rhapsodic support. The male chorus (TTBB) was provided by about 30 men of the Orpheus Choir, singing sludgy German that sometimes dragged the tempo. They did rather better further on when they got to the German Requiem-like harmonies.

The Alto Rhapsody is recorded pretty often. Wikipedia lists 19 recordings between 1945 and 2012, with two apiece by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. I first heard the Janet Baker recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and there was something of Janet Baker’s approach in Kristen Darragh’s performance, though I found Darragh’s voice beautiful in every register, from her bottom B to her high G flat. But the Alto  Rhapsody is not performed in concert very often, presumably because of the extra cost of the male choir for only a few pages of music. The recordings vary in length from 11 minutes 15 seconds (a French recording) to over 16 minutes (Christa Ludwig with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm).

Taddei was pretty brisk, coming in at 12 minutes, but the tempi seemed well judged to me. The soloist was never left hanging out to dry, and the emotional depth was quite deep enough without any wallowing. There were many lovely moments, such as the soprano over pizzicato lower strings in the third stanza, a clarinet solo or two (Nick Walshe), the always-gorgeous horns, and the final words from the chorus, ‘sein Herz’ (his heart), which sounded like a final Amen.

Young Clara Wieck was already an accomplished piano soloist and had performed several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra by the time she started writing this piano concerto. It is a remarkably mature and accomplished work. Clara’s bossy piano-teacher father tried to limit her composing because he thought it would get in the way of her playing. Robert Schumann, whom she met at one of her first recitals (she was 9, he was 18), encouraged it. Writers and critics have long thought that Robert influenced Clara. But the US musicologist, Nancy Reich, who examined the manuscripts of both Schumanns and wrote an acclaimed biography of Clara (Clara Schumann, the artist and the woman, OUP, 1989), said the boot was on the other foot. Clara was a very significant contributor to Robert’s compositions, said Reich; sometimes a co-composer. On the strength of this piano concerto she was clearly capable of it.

From the start, this is a confident work. Clara had already played some Chopin polonaises, and it shows in the writing. (For his part, Chopin heard her play, aged 18, and told Liszt all about her.) Her orchestral writing here is assured and appealing, and the piano writing is glorious, both virtuosic and lyrical. Jian Liu did it full justice, with crisp, precise playing and gorgeous, subtle gradations of colour. Taddei followed Liu’s tempi, and the orchestra played with sensitivity, matching his palette of bright and dark colours. In the second movement the stage lights came down, leaving only the pianist and the first desk of the cello section lit. The piano plays an extended solo passage, and finally the principal cello (Jane Young) enters. There is a passionate duet; then the cello withdraws. The third movement is also attacca, beginning with a little trumpet fanfare plus timpani, then a big string sound and full lower brass, a horn solo (Shadley van Wyk and Ed Allen), and an echo from bassoon (Preman Tilson). The trumpets introduce a Chopin-esque passage (minus pathos), just lots and lots of notes up and down the keyboard with tempo changes. Jian Liu turned on a dime, with Taddei and the orchestra always keeping in touch.

The audience went wild. They obviously love Jian Liu (who doesn’t?) and they were warm in their applause for Jane Young too. After being called back twice, Jian Liu came back a third time and played an encore, a pleasant nocturne by … Clara Schumann.

Only one work after the interval, Robert Schumann’s well-known Fourth Symphony, written in the rapturous first year of their marriage. Marc Taddei, obviously a great favourite of this large subscriber audience, spent some time explaining how Clara’s name (C B A G# A) appears in every movement, sometimes inverted. Examples were provided on the spot by the cello section, Concertmaster Amalia Hall, the first violins, the trombones, and the horns. The audience loved it.

‘This is one of the most radical symphonies of the nineteenth century,‘ he told them (because each movement flows straight into the next). And then, ‘It is a privilege to serve you.’ The audience purred with pleasure.

And off they went.

Schumann’s Fourth is an attractive work, bathed in sunshine. The orchestra played it well, from the confident opening to the three big final chords. The cellos always made a lovely sound; the string sound was warm and the upper brass bright and clean. Amalia Hall’s ‘filigree’ version of the Clara motif was lyrical and beautiful. The third movement burst open, a fast and furious scherzo, with exquisite violin playing. The horns sang the Clara theme; then the trio section followed with the first violins playing the filigree Clara motif. The fourth movement was all sunshine and daisies, with tidy tempo changes, before the final accelerando to the finish. Rapturous applause.