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.

Third volume of Richard Farrell piano recordings a fascinating collection of till-now unreleased treasures

Richard Farrell recordings for Atoll
Volume 3

CD 1: Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 with the National Orchestra of the NZBS, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (1948)
CD 2: Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat.  Richard Farrell Piano Quartet (Radio Suisse, Zurich, 1956)
Liszt: Transcriptions/reminiscences and original pieces
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F  minor
De Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
CD 3: William Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes (BBC 1957)

Monday 16 December 2019

The third volume of recordings of piano performances by Richard Farrell (1926 – 1958) has appeared, nine years after the first volume. Apart from a couple of small pieces, none have been commercially released though Peter Mechen (who was the assistant producer and undertook research) reminds me that the Tchaikovsky concerto was played by the then Concert Programme in the 1980s and the Liszt recital was broadcast as part of a programme marking the 25th anniversary of Farrell’s death in 1983 as well as sporadically since.

The highlights here are the two piano concertos from the one-year-old National Orchestra in 1948, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (who certain local critics were pleased to routinely excoriate); Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Fantasy Waltzes by William Alwyn.

This final instalment, which consists of three CDs, has been slow emerging since it contains mainly music that has not appeared on commercial recordings (as was the case of the earlier volumes), and its unearthing has been a painstaking and sometimes complex process. The sources have been mainly radio networks: the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (as it was then), the BBC and Swiss Radio. In the light of the all-too-common practice by broadcasters of deleting music thought at the time to be unimportant, it is surprising and significant that these recordings have at last been publicly released.

It’s amazing they even survived!

The first two volumes
The first two-CD volume contained a number of Grieg’s piano works including the Piano Concerto and his Ballade in G minor, selections from the Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces; Brahms’s four Ballades, Op 10, and  several other pieces including the Waltzes of Op 39.

Volume 2 contained Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli and six of his Preludes; a number of pieces by Chopin including the first Scherzo; Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel and some of the Op 119 piano pieces, Liszt’s ‘reminiscences’, ‘paraphrases’ etc on popular pieces by other composers, including the quartet from Rigoletto and Schumann’s Widmung (which reappear now in Volume 3) and other smaller works: Schumann’s Arabesque and pieces by Mendelssohn, Debussy and De Falla.

Tchaikovsky No 1 and Beethoven No 4
The first disc in Volume 3 contains the two piano concertos, recorded in the Auckland Town Hall by the NZBS in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra’s first performance. There is nothing disgraceful about the performance or the recording: it showed a 22-year-old Farrell somewhat inclined to overdramatise the music (if that could conceivably be a fault with this concerto!), occasionally disregarding the orchestra, but compared with the not uncommon tendency for soloists to be a little at odds, tempo-wise and in dynamics, with an orchestra, the flaws are very inconsequential. What is much more interesting is to have (for New Zealanders at any rate) this evidence of the very youthful orchestra and a comparably young, though already internationally acclaimed pianist. Tchaikovsky offers the pianist a commanding start and Farrell responds with unbridled ardour. His playing is typically impetuous, allowing little space between phrases, but these are well contrasted with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in quiet passages. The frequent bravura passages are, nevertheless, not just breath-taking but conspicuously in tune with the music, for example in the episode leading to the peroration at the end of the first movement.

The deficiencies of the recording are perhaps more evident in the meditative second movement where one might have difficulty distinguishing the various woodwinds. I don’t know the size of the string sections in the early orchestra, but the third movement certainly reveals a thinness.

A more successful blending of soloist and orchestra exists in the Beethoven concerto where Farrell clearly responds to the more ‘classical’ character of the earlier work; in fact, I was impressed by the clarity and well-judged high spirits of the Finale, which I found myself thoroughly enjoying.

Schumann Piano Quartet
The recording of the Schumann Piano Quartet by the short-lived Richard Farrell Piano Quartet is very interesting. This recording for Swiss Radio is the only known, surviving recording by the group. The story of the discovery of its existence, the result of the concurrence of people and memories, is nearly as remarkable as the performance itself, which is the only example of Farrell as a consummate chamber musician.

The group was put together by a former member of the Adolph Busch Quartet, cellist Paul Grümmer, in Switzerland in 1956. Remarkably, two of the quartet’s members, violist Eduard Melkus and cellist Ottomar Borwitsky were aged about 90 when this issue was being prepared. They contributed memories of Farrell printed in the CD booklet: interesting, revelatory and amusing.

One might listen to this recording of Schumann’s piano quartet and, given the rarity of permanent piano quartet ensembles, hear the sounds characteristic of string quartets of the era, such as the Budapest or Borodin, the Fine Arts or Amadeus quartets (not to mention the Busch Quartet itself, one of the most famous of all). The sound is partly attributable no doubt to contemporary recording characteristics and quality, and not to be denigrated. So the recording is a treasure; microphones are quite close and the feeling of immediacy, intimacy is enhanced, which would make anything less than perfect articulation and intonation very conspicuous. The opening is warmly meditative, in sharp contrast to the sudden arrival of the Allegro of the first movement revealing admirable ensemble in which no instrument is dominant at any stage; that is no doubt a tribute in part to the engineer almost as much as to the players.

The rest of the second CD is taken by a selection of fairly popular piano pieces: several Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences, the 6th Hungarian Rhapsody and the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa from the Years of Pilgrimage II – Italy.  Excellent performances, at times almost too perfect.

Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes
The third disc is devoted to a real rarity: a set of eleven pieces, Fantasy Waltzes, dedicated to Farrell by British composer William Alwyn. They too were discovered somewhat by chance, traced through the William Alwyn Foundation and the William Alwyn Archive in the Cambridge University Library and recorded by the BBC in 1957. I’d never come across this suite of pieces and a first hearing didn’t make much impression: music of the era – the 1950s – that was not dictated by the strictures of the avant-garde, of serialism; but which did at first seem a bit lightweight, feathery, lacking melodic character: somewhat akin to Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. But on second and later hearings its charming, unpretentious nature has taken root, as the various styles of waltzes are explored, melodies became more appealing and occasional cross-references start to emerge, all creating a more complex and interesting set of pieces.

Exploration of references on the Internet have led me to explore Alwyn’s other music – five symphonies and other orchestral music, four operas, much chamber and piano music as well as around seventy film scores (the NZSO under James Robertson played his second symphony in 1956 in Wellington and Auckland).

You will find an account of the Fantasy Waltzes, inter alia, on a website about a Chandos CD by pianist Julian Milford, in a series devoted to Alwyn; it mentions an earlier recording by John Ogdon, but not, naturally enough, the original dedicatee and first performer, Farrell.

Here is a quote from a review on the website:

“The Fantasy-Waltzes date from 1956-7, inspired by a visit to Grieg’s lakeside home. Almost certainly Alwyn’s best known piano music, this is a dazzling showcase, a work of constant invention which runs the gamut of moods and styles, yet is always unmistakably Alwyn. The pieces do stand alone, even though some end in disconcertingly flippant ways, but become more than the sum of the parts when heard as part of the complete structure. This is a kaleidoscope, a sustained and thoroughly enjoyable work with all the drama, colour and atmosphere one expects from Alwyn. Underneath it all is a smile, the warmth of a romantic who also knew how to have fun, both facets woven together in the spectacular twists and turns of the closing Presto.”

I feel very much the same way about them. The most comprehensive account of the pieces is on the website:

That article lists five recorded performances of the Fantasy Waltzes that were released, which did not of course include Farrell’s which remained in the archive. But it seems to be the only website to mention Farrell and it notes that he had played several of the waltzes in New Zealand before this recording was made (2 June 1957).

All of which confirm one’s impression of their being a rather significant part of the composer’s output that is nowadays rather neglected.

So Volume 3, a very miscellaneous collection of previously unpublished recordings of Farrell’s playing, not only deserves to be better known, but in their different ways reveal performances that are very interesting in themselves: A glimpse of the early NZSO, a fine performance of Schumann’s lovely piano quartet, a group of popular piano pieces that were better known in the 1950s than they are today, as a result of promoters’ avoidance of piano recitals, and the discovery of a group of charming and imaginative pieces by the neglected William Alwyn.

At least one of these diverse aspects should be enough to attract a wide range of music lovers.

This third volume of Farrell CDs can be purchased from Marbecks in Auckland: see their website.

Rachmaninov from Rustem Hayroudinoff, via Halida Dinova……

RACHMANINOV – The Piano Sonatas

Piano Sonata No.1 in D Minor Op.28
Lullaby (Tchaikovsky) Op.16 No.1) arr. Rachmaninov
Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.36

Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano)

ONYX 4181 (available from Presto Classical)

What on earth, you are asking, am I doing reviewing a CD by a pianist whose name would be largely unknown to New Zealand audiences? The answer is that Rustem Hayroudinoff is the brother of the remarkable Tatarstan pianist Halida Dinova who has relatively recently toured New Zealand on two occasions, giving, at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre during her visit here in 2012, one of the most remarkable recitals I’ve ever witnessed – go to for more details. At the time, I thought Dinova’s playing seemed to epitomise a style long associated with Russian-trained pianists, one which invariably resulted in music-making that powerfully conjured up a compelling amalgam of pictorial, emotional and structural associations out of whatever repertoire these pianists performed.

On the strength of the brilliant music-making to be found on this new Onyx CD from Rustem Hayroudinoff, that tradition certainly runs in the family – it’s a further example of a musician’s alchemic “ownership” of the notes and their recreation in performance. Coincidentally enough, I had already encountered Hayroudinoff, in a previous issue of Rachmaninov’s music on the Chandos label, featuring the composer’s complete Preludes (CHAN 10107),  long before I knew of the connection with Dinova.

This time Hayroudinoff turns his attention to the Piano Sonatas, adding a well-judged interlude in the form of Rachmaninov’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby Op.16 No.1, placed between the two larger works. Hayroudinoff comments in a thoughtful note printed in the CD booklet, that this was Rachmaninov’s last composition, dating from 1941, aptly completing a circle of creativity which had begun as a 13 year-old with another Tchaikovsky transcription, that of the latter’s Manfred Symphony for piano duet.

Still, whatever the Tchaikovsky Lullaby transcription’s merits, nobody will be buying this disc with this piece first and foremost in mind – though the Sonatas (especially the Second) have had their “champions” (one thinks of John Ogdon’s ground-breaking 1968 LP of both works, for example, and Vladimir Horowitz’s espousal of the Second over the years), it’s only in comparatively recent times that these pieces have become widely accepted as masterpieces. The First was rarely performed, and the original version of the Second wasn’t played for many years, so that a proper “performance tradition” is only now being established for each of the Sonatas by a newer generation of super-virtuosi.

Rather like the case with Bruckner and several of his own symphonies, the Second Sonata’s original 1913 version was called to question by Rachmmaninov himself, who drastically revised it in 1931, cutting the original by six or seven minutes. For a long time afterwards interpreters either followed the composer’s revised score, or played a version that combined elements of the two editions, such as Horowitz made (with the composer’s blessing), and Hayroudinoff himself does here. The original 1913 version is finding increased favour with more interpreters, and recordings, among them Leslie Howard of the “complete Franz Liszt” fame, who states unequivocally in a note accompanying his own recording of the original, “… musician should ever give a passing thought to a “pick-and-mix” version of the two texts”. As with the aforementioned Bruckner Symphonies, it may well happen in time that the various combined-edition versions will come to be regarded as curiosities next to either the original or composer-made revised version – all part of the work’s overall genesis and process of acceptance!

Hayroudinoff’s present recording certainly contributes to that process in the case of both of the sonatas, even if he takes little heed of Leslie Howard’s comments regarding the Second Sonata, by offering his own “amalgam” of the two versions, obviously from deep-rooted conviction……

“I strongly believe that in his quest for conciseness, Rachmaninov excised so much in the revised edition of the Sonata that the structure of the work suffered. Where I felt that some of the logic of the continuity of ideas was compromised, I discreetly reinstated them from the original edition. I hope that the listener will not judge me as an insolent desecrator. I did this out of love for this extraordinary work, and with the humble intention to restore its coherence……” (Rustem Hayroudinoff)

Even if Rachmaninov aficionados reading this review agree with Leslie Howard’s negative opinion regarding the “hybridisation” of the Sonata, they should, in my opinion, still try and hear Hayroudinoff’s extraordinary playing of it, irrespective of the pianist’s own cross-references to the Sonata’s original edition. With the chromatic descent that opens the work, Hayroudinoff emphatically plunges the listener into a world of unique sensibility at once expansive and volatile, each note imbued with purpose and “attitude” which gives both expansiveness and weight to those opening declamations and the tremendous “rolling” crescendi whose peaks then fall away so resonantly and ambiently before the second subject’s heart-easing lyricism (to my ears a precursor of the Fourth Piano Concerto’s similarly bitter-sweet melodic outpourings).

Hayroudinoff’s innate sense of the music’s organic flow allowed both the music’s tenderness and pent-up energies to interact, bringing out the “growing” of the downwardly chromatic motif with ever-increasing insistence to the point where the sounds transcendentally became as sonorous church bells (one of a number of recurring influences of Rachmaninov’s compositional life), linking the Sonata to another work from that same time, his choral symphony “The Bells”.

Seemingly from out of the air Hayroudinoff floated the notes which set the second movement on its course, patiently building the music’s richly-laden decorative aspect towards, firstly, a full-throated melodic peroration, and then another bell-like evocation, this time darker and disturbingly remorseless. After delivering panic-stricken flourishes of shriller voices in response, the pianist brought a beautifully consoling order to the uneasy resonance of echoes and consoling voices, a “calm before the storm” aspect which heightened the effect of the third movement’s onslaught!

An almost militaristic aspect dominated the opening, Hayroudinoff’s incredible strength and dexterity driving the music forward excitingly, though with playing always alive to quixotic changes of mood, with their attendant variations of touch and sonority. Again, I thought the pianist’s rendering of the music’s different facets extraordinary – here bound together with an alchemic sense of ongoing purpose, a living quality which quickened this listener’s senses as well as the emotions and the intellect. Still, overwhelming as the result was, the playing’s illuminating quality left part of me wishing that Hayroudinoff had “gone for broke” and given us the original 1913 version of the music.

Thankfully no such lasting equivocations affect the music of the First Piano Sonata, composed in 1907 when Rachmaninov was in Dresden, simultaneously writing his Second Symphony and his opera “Monna Vanna”. The sonata has the same epic proportions as the symphony, and Rachmaninov characteristically expressed dissatisfaction with both works on their completion, and even after publication of the symphony suggesting numerous cuts for performers to apply. Of course, in the wake of the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, it was perhaps understandable that the composer would, even after the new symphony’s initial success, “lose his nerve” in the face of eventual critical disparagement, the upshot being that his suggested cuts were “sanctioned” and invariably followed in subsequent performances up until the late 1960s/early70s when the work at last began to be played “complete” once again!

A different fate awaited its “companion piece”, the D Minor Piano Sonata, which, while maintaining its content since its publication in 1908, had already been cut extensively by a worried composer after a “trial performance”. Describing the work in a letter to a friend as “wild and endlessly long”, Rachmaninov remarked ruefully that “no-one will ever play this work” due to its “dubious musical merit”. Mostly non-committal regarding any “programme” or other source of inspiration for his compositions, the composer let it slip in the same letter that the work’s “idea” was made up of “three contrasting characters from a work of world literature”. He refrained, however, from telling the sonata’s first public interpreter, Konstantin Igumnov, until AFTER the latter had performed the work a few times, that the “work of world literature” was Goethe’s “Faust”, and each of the three movements related to a particular character in the story, as was the case with Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony.

Hayroudinoff tells us that he believes an awareness of Rachmaninov’s original programme is a key to understanding the complexities of this work – Rachmaninov said as much in another statement from the letter quoted above – “…..I am beginning to think that, if I were to reveal the programme, the Sonata would become much more comprehensible…..”. The pianist quotes from Faust’s monologue at the beginning of the play, one which expresses the character’s inner conflict, and explains his actions throughout the drama’s course – Faust speaks of his “two souls”, one loving the world, the other longing for higher things “beyond the dust”. Thus, in his playing, Hayroudinoff stressed certain themes that for him illustrated this conflict, making the music’s trajectories throughout the “Faust” movement interact and confront one another in the most visceral and dramatic ways, though always preserving the grand sweep of the whole, demonstrating something of that ability which Sviatoslav Richter’s teacher Heinrich Neuhaus described his pupil as having – that ability to soar above the whole work, even one of gigantic proportions, with an eagle’s flight, and take it all in at a single glance with incredible speed.

In the second “Gretchen” movement, there’s straightaway a sense of a young girl’s innocence and purity, in tandem with a quickening of impulsive longing as the line is “counterpointed” by a would-be lover’s voice, real or imagined, the long-breathed themes encircled and sensitised by the sinuous patterning of the accompaniments, and intensified in feeling by ecstatically elongated trills. Hayroudinoff here showed himself equally at home with evocations of tenderness and sensitivity as with brilliance and strength, as the lovers’ union reached a kind of fulfilment, before the music unhurriedly returned both the characters and their intentions to the imaginations’ shadows.

Characterising in his accompanying notes the sonata’s final movement as “the realm of Mephistopheles”, Hayroudinoff then made the word flesh with playing of staggering bravado, giving the “Spirit of Negation” all the swagger and energy that accompanied his quest for possession of Faust’s soul. Suggestions, echoes and variants of the Latin hymn “Dies Irae” abounded as the forces of good and evil, and light and darkness did battle, Rachmaninov’s astounding vision here put across with unsurpassed conviction and irresistible command by the pianist.

This issue, in my view, takes its place among the great Rachmaninov recordings of recent times, a number of which feature the same two-sonata coupling (from Xiayn Wang, Leslie Howard, Nikolai Lugansky and Alexis Weissenberg, by way of example, along with a recent reissue of John Ogdon’s famous 1968 RCA recording). With the advocacy of such illustrious names as these, along with that of Rustem Hayroudinoff’s, the shade of the composer may well rest contentedly at last regarding this vindication of two of his greatest compositions.


Pianist Tony Chen Lin’s debut CD for Rattle a must-hear….

Rattle Records presents:
DIGRESSIONS – Tony Chen Lin (piano)

BARTOK – Piano Sonata BB 88 (Sz.80)
JS BACH – French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
TONY CHEN LIN – Digressions (Meditation on R.S.)
SCHUMANN – Humoreske Op.20

Rattle RAT DO80 2018

My first encounter with Tony Chen Lin was in 2008 at Kerikeri’s International Piano Competition, in which he was awarded what I’ve always regarded as a “too close to call” second place to his friend Jun Bouterey-Ishido. Since then I’ve heard each of them some years afterwards give separate recitals in Wellington; and while appreciating the unique excellence of each, I’m still unable to pronounce either of them the other’s superior. Most recently I heard Lin perform at St.Andrew’s, which was less than a couple of years ago, in September of 2016  (the review can be read at the following link – ), and two of the items he presented on that occasion are now included on this, his first CD, appearing on the Rattle Records label.

The CD’s overall title “Digressions” is borrowed from one of these two pieces, in fact Lin’s own composition. As its subtitle Meditation on R.S. suggests, the piece is a kind of reflection on Robert Schumann’s Humoreske, the work that concludes this recording’s programme. The opening tones of Lin’s piece seemed conjured out of the air, with occasional “impulses of delight” enlivening the self-communing character of the whole, the lines becoming more and more declamatory and detailed to a point where the music seems to turn in on itself and exclaim “Now, what was that work I was going to play? – ah, yes!….” – and from the resonances, the opening notes of the Schumann sound, in haunting accord with the pianist’s musings.

Before this, however, the disc’s contents take us well-and-truly to “other realms” (as Schumann was fond of saying), in the form of music firstly by Bartok and then JS Bach, the latter’s French Suite No. 5 in D Major being the “other” work previously performed at the 2016 St.Andrew’s recital.  One might think that the Bach piece, with its supremely ordered sensibilities, would make an excellent “starter” to any concert – however, we’re instead galvanised in a completely different way at the outset by one of  Bartok’s pieces. In Lin’s hands, the composer’s 1926 Sonata makes an arresting beginning, with its hammered repeated notes and three-note ascending motif, the whole peppered with irregular phrases and brusque punctuations. Amongst these, Lin still manages to find moments of light and shade, as well as in places giving the rhythms a disconcertingly irregular (almost “dotted”) pulse, creating a somewhat precarious, even “slightly tipsy”, effect, and adding to the droll humour. A sudden headlong sprint and a whiplash glissando, and the movement brusquely takes its leave.

Like some Dr.Coppelius-like clock, tolling bell sounds usher in the second movement, the piano’s repeated chords augmented by an insistently anguished single right-hand note, Lin’s clean, steady playing allowing the grim austerity of the scenario its full effect. Though this “tolling bell” rhythm persists throughout, Bartok creates whole worlds of culminative angst and desolation over the widest possible range of colour and dynamics – a particularly magical moment in Lin’s performance sounds at 4’01”, with the constant stepwise rhythm suddenly hushed, almost sinister, as the right hand’s spaced-out pinpricks of light flicker disconsolately through the gloom.

The “rondo with variations” third movement features a pentatonic melody given all kinds of different rustic-like treatment, with songs and dances, fiddles and flutes, in the midst of great merriment and energetic spirits. Lin evokes all of these strands of colour and timbre with seemingly indefatigable energy, by turns invigorating and startling our sensibilities with his playing’s strength, flexibility and incisiveness. Throughout he’s served by a recording which reproduces every contour, scintillation and whisper, making for listeners as much a properly visceral as a musical experience.

After this, the music of JS Bach evokes a somewhat different world, though, as with Bartok’s work, Bach’s forms often incorporated dance styles and rhythms familiar to his contemporaries. The French Suites, for example, contain examples of well-known forms such as Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, along with other dances such as the Gavotte, the Minuet and the Bouree, both courtly and rustic in origin. To my ears, Tony Lin’s treatment of these pieces open them all up to sunlight and fresh air – the opening Allemande moves directly and assuredly along a trajectory whose modulations go with the terrain, registering both impulse and reflection along the journey, though without impeding the flow, Lin animating the repeats in what sound like entirely natural and spontaneous ways, compelling my attention with every bar. How joyously the Courante leaps forward from all constraints, its canon-like voicings in places between the hands bubbling with energy and humour – and , in response, how dignified and visionary seems the stately Sarabande, the pianist’s way with repeats illustrating Lin’s ability to create time and space within the realms of a steadily-moving pulse.

I loved how the music seemed to then pick up its skirts/coat-tails for the Gavotte, and trip insouciantly through its paces, the pianist’s lightness of touch never descending to any kind of  “pecking” or jabbing at the music. The engagingly garrulous Bouree acted as the perfect foil for the succeeding Loure, with its sedate, but teasingly-patterned 6/4 rhythms, so very flexibly voiced. And in conclusion, the Gigue danced its way through the soundscape, Lin making something wide-eyed and wondrous of the inversions of the theme in the dance’s second half – a performance which so warm-heartedly brought out the music’s life-enhancing character for one’s listening pleasure.

Once the brief though entraptured musings of Lin’s own “Digressions” had prepared the way, I was more than ready for Schumann’s Humoreske. The composer meant the title not as “humour” in the accepted sense of the word, but as a kind of portrayal of the contradictory and volatile nature of the human condition. Lin’s playing gives the opening a beautifully thought-borne quality, something seemingly to exist both “in the air” and within the realms of the listener’s imagination, at once elusive and all-encompassing in its poetic effect – the composer’s “rhapsodising” about his Clara, and his expressions of love for her here given poignant utterance, obviously somewhere between the “laughing and crying” confessed to by Schumann in a letter to his beloved. At the beginning, the way the melody seems to be “revealed” as if already mid-course is beautifully brought about by the pianist, as is the spontaneous leap-forward of the quicker material, the left hand’s accompanying figurations allowed some tripping, angular quality, imparting a character of their own in tandem with the right-hand’s melody, the effect boyish and engaging! After the extended dotted-rhythm section quixotically dances through fanciful modulations, Lin masterfully eases the music back through its journeyings, returning to the first of the quicker episodes, and then, magically, dissolving such energies into the opening, as if the song we heard at the outset had been meanwhile singing to itself while awaiting our return.

Further fancy awaits the listener in the inspirational, often volatile second movement, during which succeeding moods appearing to “cancel each other out” with breathtaking rapidity. Lin’s traversal of the music is remarkable for its chameleon-like aspect, its ability to “go with” whatever impulse the composer’s fancy follows, while constantly keeping in mind something of what Schumann called an Innere Stimme or “inner voice” (a quality he also referred to concerning his Op. 17 C-Major Fantasie). So while Lin rings all the composer’s seemingly random changes of momentum and mood, he keeps us close to the music’s spirit with an all-pervading concentration on some unspoken and indefinable, but palpable “centre” around which all the “humours” revolve.

By comparison, the third piece, Einfach und zart (Simple and delicate) seems straightforward enough, interpretatively, a poetic opening, with a contrasting Intermezzo – rapid semiquaver figurations, including right-hand octaves at one point so as to set the pianist’s pulses racing! Here, the notes tumbled over one another jovially, Lin’s playing giving the octave passages a kind of fierce joy in their unbridled energies, before returning to the simple lyricism of the beginning. The Innig
(Heartfelt) section is here delivered by the pianist with a born poet’s sensibility, and the energetic Sehr lebhaft which followed then works up a proper head of steam as to convince us of the music’s inevitable “shower of brilliance” summation in Lin’s hands, only to suddenly (and characteristically) transform into a portentous march!

All the listener can do is gape in astonishment and “go” with the strains of the music as it struts into yet another realm of expressive possibility, muttering to itself as it fades into the following Zum Beschluss, one of the composer’s beautiful “epilogue-like” valedictions, an extended amalgam of song and recitative, here, as with so much else along this journey of Lin’s, most eloquently expressed. It remains for a series of swirling chromatically step-wise descents to rudely awaken one’s imaginings from this final reverie for a “return to life”, leaving this listener with “What a journey, and what a guide!” kinds of reactions! – Tony Lin’s ever-spontaneous and boldly adventurous playing seems to me to have most assuredly penetrated the spirit of the composer’s most fanciful, yet deeply-felt outpourings. In all, it’s a disc well worth seeking out and hearing.



Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Te Kōkī Trio record music for the ages

DEBUSSY – Two Instrumental Sonatas and a Piano Trio
Violin Sonata in G Minor (1917)
‘Cello Sonata in D Minor (1915)
Piano Trio in G Major (1879)

Te Kōkī Trio: Martin Riseley (violin)
Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano)
Rattle Records 0069 2017

JS BACH – Six Suites for solo ‘Cello BWV 1007-12
Volume One ( Suites 1-3)

Inbal Megiddo (‘cello)

Atoll Records ACD 228

Inbal Megiddo is presently the head of ‘Cello Studies at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington, and has appeared in numerous concerts in Wellington both as a soloist and as a member of Te Kōkī Trio, an ensemble in which she is joined by two other faculty members, Martin Riseley, and Jian Liu, the respective heads of violin and piano studies at the school. Her career as a performer and teacher had previously taken her to various places throughout Europe, Asia and America before she came to New Zealand to take up a position at Victoria University’s Music School.

She’s now made recordings for Rattle, the first half of a set of Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonatas with Jian Liu (the second disc is currently in preparation), and here with Te Kōkī Trio as listed above, in a recording of two of Debussy’s instrumental sonatas and his Piano Trio. She’s also recording for Atoll Records what’s intended to be a complete set of JS Bach’s Suites for Solo ‘Cello, the first disc of which is reviewed here. Prospective buyers may prefer to wait for her integral 2-disc set of these works, though people wanting a sample of her playing of this repertoire will be more than happy with this single CD, as the performances, to my ears, are strongly recommendable.

Recorded a year before the Bach/Atoll CD, the Rattle recording features Te Koki Trio, whose members variously bring together three chamber works by Claude Debussy. There are two instrumental sonatas from the composer’s last years, one for ‘Cello and Piano (1915) and the other for Violin and Piano (1917), the latter being the composer’s last completed work. The trio then comes together for the disc’s final work, an early Piano Trio (1879).

The Violin Sonata begins the concert, here given a strong and atmospheric performance by Martin Riseley (violin) and Jian Liu (piano), the opening, perfectly-poised piano chords straightaway taking us into the composer’s characteristic sound-world of wonderment, joined after a few seconds by the violin’s more questioning voice. As the first movement moves, kaleidoscope-like, through its different realms, the instrumental interactions change from assertion to surrender with easy mastery, all brought off beautifully by the players. The violin’s exotic-sounding inclination to slide between notes in two or three places add to the mystery of the discourse, as do the beautiful balances achieved between the two players in the softest moments, realising the composer’s flights of fancy with intense concentration and focus.

There are a couple of strangely protracted between-movements pauses on this recording, as here, sharpening the listener’s eagerness to engage with the rest of the work! The quixotic second movement then delivers us playing of such impish drollery at the beginning, I found myself smiling (sometimes out loud!) at the po-faced audacity of it all! But what melancholy both Riseley and Liu brought to the music’s lovely middle section! And how easefully they then charted the course as the music moved disconcertingly between humour and wistfulness over the final pages. The final movement opened in a dreamlike manner, before the instruments roused themselves with alacrity, the violin in particular rushing about, rather like a caged bird wanting to break free, and compelling its partner to dance. As everywhere, I liked the performance’s risk-taking with these volatilities, the various figurations delivered by the players with engaging spontaneity rather than mere crystalline perfection. Again, Debussy’s fertile imagination takes the music unexpectedly into sultry, suggestive climes, violinist and pianist relishing the volatility of it all, Liu’s piano suddenly scampering away, with Riseley’s violin in hot pursuit. The music returned to the movement’s opening “caged bird” energies, but then surprised the listener once again, as the violin slowed the note sequences down to become almost childlike in expression. After a final accelerando from the depths and back into the light, the players suddenly and exuberantly threw their notes skyward in a gesture of wry finality.

Where the Violin Sonata began pensively and poetically, the ‘Cello Sonata opened with solemn grandeur and ceremony, the piano preparing the way for the ‘cello to adopt a similar mode, though both players soon relinquished the grandeur for more poetic exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s instrument singing in beautiful accord with Jian Liu’s well-rounded tones. How excitingly the two instruments then raced together, as if for possession of a hilltop or a favourite hiding-place, before stopping to fully relish the surrounding silent spaces, the soft playing of both cellist and pianist a breath-holding sequence of pleasure at the end!

Something of a “how-de-do” marked the exchanges at the second movement’s opening! –  in pizzicato mode the ‘cello became a kind of conspirator with the piano’s terse utterances. Again in an exotic-sounding setting, the instruments whimsically switched from staccato/pizzicato to legato/arco, while exploring as many timbres in between as fell in with fancy, making for a somewhat hallucinatory ride through a dreamscape! Impulsively, the finale breaks the mood with lively figurations from both instruments, the energies then giving way to introspection throughout a central section, until Megiddo and Liu revitalised the music’s tumbling aspects with almost manic focus, to the point where the music suddenly cried “enough”, and curtly silenced their efforts.

Playing the disc to anybody unfamiliar with the music would probably invite shock and disbelief on the listener’s part upon being told that all three works presented here were by the same composer! As a demonstration of how much distance someone’s creativity can travel in a lifetime, Debussy’s Piano Trio of 1879 makes for a profound listening experience in retrospect, while remaining totally enjoyable on a visceral level. Its first movement is the longest of the four, a graceful Andantino with songful lines for each instrument, the material conventional, but with everything confidently and meticulously wrought. A whimsical Scherzo has an attractively exotic feel to its opening gait, its central Trio section given the right amount of contrasting sentiment and circumspection by the players – while the slow movement’s Andante Espressivo, again beautifully set out for the instruments, charms with its slightly perfumed lyricism, Te Kōkī Trio allowing the music to speak for itself within a salon-like context.

Marked “Appassionato”, the last movement works up an acceptably “charged” level of feeling within the music’s own range and scope, again impressing with its workmanlike construction and level of expression, and indicating something of the boy Debussy’s obvious potential as a creator in years to come. Full credit to Te Kōkī Trio for taking so much trouble with the work, here in Rattle’s crystalline recording, sounding gloriously prodigious, if a tad disconcerting regarding content, in the company of its two more sophisticated “latter-day” siblings!

Turning to the Atoll disc of Inbal Megiddo’s performances of the first three of JS Bach’s ‘Cello Suites, one encounters something of the rarefied world of Debussy’s late Sonatas in terms of the relationship between economy of means and richness of expression. Inbal Megiddo’s playing, recorded by Wayne Laird in the precincts of Stella Maris Chapel, at Seatoun, in Wellington, sounds equally as glorious, her characterful playing captured in all its variety of utterance as a truly lifelike
representation, which I can’t wait to hear again on completing my task of committing these thoughts regarding the disc to the record.

Megiddo’s performances are recorded in numbered order, so I began my listening with the Prelude of the very first Suite, a performance which combined heart and mind, reaching for its emotional points with such surety and purpose, while keeping the music’s structures intact – the figurations were at once surely negotiated and yet imbued with a sense of liberation which empowered the listener to surrender to the music and the playing with the utmost confidence. After a freely-flowing and fanciful Prelude, the Allemande continued the process of unlocking the music, drawing from the player such strength and confidence as to enchant the listener. The Courante combined forthright impulse and purpose with a sense of fun – an unbuttoning of joyful expression, music which here expressed the idea of life’s essential cheerfulness in the face of worldly troubles, rather as Schubert was wont to do in his music. The Sarabande, deeply-felt and long-breathed in its phrasing, was Romeo to the Courante’s Mercutio – the figurations here spoke of imaginings and projections of thoughts and feelings beyond earthly boundaries. The Menuets were properly contrasted, the first confident and eager in its deportment, and the second, contrasting dance its more circumspect side, the opening a descent rather than the upward-leaping figure of the first dance, the legato of the figurations adding to the solemnities. I liked the rustic twang of the repeated opening dance’s final phrase. Dance-like, too was the final gigue, the player vigorous but flexible in her trajectories, impulsiveness hand-in-glove with a teasing flexibility, the sounds of sympathetic strings activated adding to the warmth and bustle..

Suite No.2 begins with D Minor circumspection, the playing expressing a care for solemnity of mood which gave the music the feeling of a soliloquy, one rising to expressive heights with beautifully-phrased ascents towards long-held notes. The Allemande seemed no less serious at the outset, the figurations eloquently speaking with the tones of a philosopher, the repeats nicely hinting at variations in emphasis, setting nothing in stone, but seemingly open to conjecture. Impulsively interrupting the discourse, the Courante burst in, all elbows and knees, proclaiming action rather than thought, clearing the way for the somewhat ceremonial pronouncements of the Sarabande, grand and stately, though Megiddo’s repeat of the opening made one catch one’s breath at its extra “layered” quality, the second time round, the dynamics given more open spaces to explore. Megiddo warmed the music to its task in the second part, sharpening the intensities, while keeping the beautiful shape of the whole. She found positive minor-key purpose in the first Menuet, making the major-key relaxation in Menuet II a joy, and links these nicely to the Gigue in mood, the playing resonantly voiced, and almost peasant-ish, in some places, in its suggestion of a dance-like drone.

We got plenty of C Major splendour in Megiddo’s opening of the Third Suite, great, confidently-arched roulades of sound, and with the player not afraid to saturate the music’s tonal palate with richly-wrought repeated arpeggiations, fearlessly and generously generated for our pleasure. After this, the Allemande seemed more-than-usually light on its feet, putting the following Courante even more on its mettle, the energies playful and teasing, the tones adding different kinds of timbral emphases to the narrative, to “spice up” the story. Very free at the outset in the Sarabande, Megiddo gave the music a full-throated voice, before varying the intensity in the repeated passage, expressing the emotion, and then stepping back to re-experience its effect at a distance – in these measured, beautifully controlled sequences she seemed to play both player and listener roles, the music having transfixed both and bound them inextricably together. We then got two Bourees instead of Menuets (these always remind me of sailors’ dances!), the first of which Megiddo gleefully propelled through its figured routine, pausing for reflection throughout the second of the two episodes, and then returning to the more overtly physical of the dances with renewed vigour. But the most unbuttoned exuberance was left to the final Gigue, which here under Megiddo’s fingers swept everything before it in a torrent of unbridled joy and confidence, the music-making compelling in its detailings and infectious in the sheer elan of its execution. (Sustained applause!)



Two resounding recordings from Rattle – classics and a feisty newcomer

Sonatina – piano (1960) / Three Pieces – violin and piano (1967)
Black, White and Coloured – solo piano (selections – 1999/2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Dance Suite from “Ring Round the Moon” (1957 arr. 2002)
Jian Liu (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Jane Curry (guitar)
Rattle RAT-D062 2015

MODEST MUSSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition
Henry Wong Doe (piano)
Rattle RAT-D072 2017

How best does one describe a “classic” in art, and specifically in music?

Taking the contents of both CDs listed above, one might argue that there are two “classic” compositions to be found among these works, one recognised internationally and the other locally, each defined as such by its popularity and general recognition as a notable piece of work. If this suggests a kind of facile populist judgement, one might reflect that posterity does eventually take over, either continuing to further enhance or consigning to relative neglect and near-oblivion the pieces’ existence in the scheme of things.

Though hardly rivalling the reputation and impact in global terms of Modest Mussorgsky’s remarkable Pictures at an Exhibition on the sensibilities of listeners and concert-goers, it could safely be said that New Zealand composer David Farquhar’ s 1957 incidental music for the play Ring Round the Moon has caught the imagination of local classical music-lovers to an extent unrivalled by any of the composer’s other works, and, indeed by many other New Zealand compositions. I would guess that, at present, only certain pieces by Farquhar’s colleague Douglas Lilburn would match Ring Round the Moon in popularity in this country, amongst classical music aficionados.

The presence of each of these works on these recordings undoubtedly gives the latter added general interest of a kind which I think surely benefits the lesser-known pieces making up each of the programmes. In both cases the combinations are beautifully thought-out and judiciously placed to show everything to its best possible advantage. And visually, there’s similar accord on show, the art-work and general layout of each of the two discs having its own delight and distinction, in the best tradition previously established by the Rattle label.

So enamoured am I still with Farquhar’s original RIng Round the Moon for small orchestra (that first recording featuring the Alex Lindsay Orchestra can be found by intrepid collectors on Kiwi-Pacific Records CD SLD-107), I thought I would give myself more time to get used to the idea of a violin-and-piano version (arranged by the composer in 1992). I therefore began my listening with the more recent disc, Pictures, featuring pianist Henry Wong Doe’s enterprising coupling of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and a 2016 work by Auckland composer Eve de Castro-Robinson, A zigzagged gaze, one which similarly presents a series of musical responses to a group of visual artworks.

Mussorgsky’s collection of pieces commemorated the work of a single artist, Victor Hartmann, a close friend of the composer, whereas de Castro-Robinson’s series of pieces, commissioned by the pianist, were inspired by work from different artists in a single collection, that of the Wallace Arts Trust. In the booklet notes accompanying the CD the composer describes the process of selecting artworks from the collection as “a gleeful trawling through riches”. And not only does she offer a series of brief but illuminating commentaries regarding the inspirational effect of each of the pictures, but includes for each one a self-written haiku, so that we get a series of delightfully-wrought responses in music, poetry and prose.

Henry Wong Doe premiered de Castro Robinson’s work, along with the Mussorgsky, at a “Music on Madison Series” concert in New York on March 5th 2017, and a month later repeated the combination for the New Zealand premiere in Auckland at the School of Music Theatre. His experience of playing this music “live” would have almost certainly informed the sharpness of his characterisations of the individual pieces, and their almost theatrical contrasts. For the most part, everything lives and breathes, especially the de Castro Robinson pieces, which, of course, carry no interpretative “baggage” for listeners, unlike in the Mussorgsky work, which has become a staple of the virtuoso pianist repertoire.

While not effacing memories of some of the stellar recorded performances of the latter work I’ve encountered throughout the years, Wong Doe creates his own distinctive views of many of the music’s sequences. He begins strongly, the opening “Promenade” bright, forthright, optimistic and forward-looking, evoking the composer’s excitement and determination to get to grips with the business of paying tribute to his artist friend, Viktor Hartmann whose untimely death was commemorated by an exhibition of his work.

The pianist relishes the contrasts afforded by the cycle, such as between the charm of the Tuileries scene with the children, and the momentously lumbering and crunching “Bydlo” which immediately follows. He also characterises the interactive subjects beautifully – the accents of the gossipping women in “The Market-Place at Limoges” tumble over one another frenetically, while the piteous cries of the poor Jew in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are sternly rebuffed by his well-heeled, uncaring contemporary.

I liked Wong Doe’s sense of spaciousness in many places, such as in the spectral “Catacombs”, and in the following “Con Mortuis in lingua mortua” (the composer’s schoolboy Latin still manages to convey a sense of the transcendence he wanted) – the first, imposing part delineating darkness and deathly finality, while the second part creating a communion of spirits between the composer and his dead artist friend – Wong Doe’s playing throughout the latter properly evoked breathless beauty and an almost Lisztian transcendence generated by the right hand’s figurations.)

Only in a couple of places I wanted him to further sustain this spaciousness – steadying a few slightly rushed repeated notes at the opening of the middle section of “Baba Yaga”, and holding for a heartbeat or so longer onto what seemed to me a slightly truncated final tremolando cadence right at the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. But the rest was pure delight, with the fearful witch’s ride generating both properly razor-sharp cries and eerie chromatic mutterings along its course, and the imposing “Great Gate” creating as magnificent and atmospheric a structure of fanciful intent as one would wish for.

Following Mussorgsky’s classic depiction of diverse works of art in music with another such creation might seem to many a foolhardy venture, one destined to be overshadowed. However, after listening to Wong Doe’s playing of Auckland composer Eve de Castro Robinson’s 2016 work, A Zigzagged Gaze, I’m bound to say that, between them, composer and pianist have brought into being something that can, I think, stand upright, both on its own terms and in such company. I listened without a break to all ten pieces first time up, and, like Mussorgsky at Viktor Hartmann’s exhibition, found myself in a tantalising network of connection and diversity between objects and sounds all wanting to tell their stories.

The work and its performance here seems to me to be a kind of celebration of the place of things in existence – the ordinary and the fabulous, the everyday and the special, the surface of things and the inner workings or constituents. As with Mussorgsky’s reactions to his artist friend Hartmann’s creations, there’s both a “possessing” of each work’s essence on de Castro-Robinson’s part and a leap into the kind of transcendence that music gives to things, be they objects, actions or emotions, allowing we listeners to participate in our own flights of fancy and push out our own limits of awareness.

As I live with this music I’m sure I’ll develop each of the composer’s explorations within my own capabilities, and still be surprised where and how far some of them take me. On first hearing I’m struck by the range of responses, and mightily diverted by the whimsy of some of the visual/musical combinations – the “gargantual millefiori paperweight” response to artist Rohan Wealleans’ “Tingler” in sound, for example. I’m entertained by the persistent refrains of Philip Trusttum’s “The Troubadour”, the vital drollery of Miranda Parkes’ “Trick-or-Treater” and the rousing strains of Jacqueline Fahey’s “The Passion Flower”. But in other moods I’ll relish the gentle whimsicalities inspired by Josephine Cachemaille’s “Diviner and Minder” with its delight in human reaction to small, inert things, and the warm/cool beauties of Jim Speers’ “White Interior”, a study of simply being.

Most haunting for me, on first acquaintance, however, are “Return”, with Vincent Ward’s psychic interior depiction beautifully reflected in de Castro Robinson’s deep resonances and cosmos-like spaces between light and darkness, and the concluding tranquilities of the initially riotous and unequivocal rendering of Judy Miller’s “Big Pink Shimmering One”, where the composer allows the listener at the end space alone with oneself to ponder imponderables, the moment almost Rimbaud-like in its powerful “Après le déluge, c’est moi!” realisation.

Henry Wong Doe’s playing is, here, beyond reproach to my ears – it all seems to me a captivating fusion of recreativity and execution, the whole beautifully realised by producer Kenneth Young and the Rattle engineers. I can’t recommend the disc more highly on the score of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work alone, though Wong Doe’s performance of the Mussorgsky is an enticing bonus.

Turning to the other disc for review, one featuring David Farquhar’s music (as one might expect of a production entitled “Ring Round the Moon”) I noted with some pleasure that the album’s title work was placed last in the programme, as a kind of “all roads lead to” gesture, perhaps to encourage in listeners the thought that, on the face of things, the journey through a diverse range of Farquhar’s music would bring sure-fire pleasure at the traversal’s end.

Interestingly, the programme replicates a “Remembering David Farquhar” concert on the latter’s seventh anniversary in 2014, at Wellington’s NZSM, curated by Jack Body and featuring the same performers – so wonderful to have that occasion replicated here in preserved form. The disc is packaged in one of Rattle’s sumptuously-presented booklet gatefold containers, which also features details from one of artist Toss Woolaston’s well-known Erua series of works, and a biography of the artist.

Beginning the disc is Sonatina, a work for solo piano from 1950, which gives the listener an absorbing encounter with a young (and extremely promising) composer’s music. Three strongly characterised movements give ample notice of an exciting talent already exploring his creativity in depth. Seventeen years later, Farquhar could confidently venture into experimental territory with a Sonata for violin and piano which from the outset challenged his listeners to make something of opposing forces within a work struggling to connect in diverse ways. A second movement dealt in unconventionalities such as manipulating piano strings with both fingers and percussion sticks, after which a final movement again set the instruments as much as combatants as voices in easy accord.

The Black, White and Coloured pieces for piano, from 1999-2002, are represented in two selections on the disc – they represent a fascination Farquhar expressed concerning the layout of the piano keyboard, that of two modal sets of keys, five black and seven white. By limiting each hand to one mode Farquhar created a kind of “double” keyboard, with many opportunities for colour through interaction between the two “modes”. Altogether, Farquhar had twenty-five such pieces published in 2003.

I remember at the NZSM concert being less than enamoured of these works, thinking then that some of the pieces seemed too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the settings of Negro Spirituals – but this time round I thought them enchanting, the “double harmonied” effect producing an effect not unlike Benjamin Britten’s treatment of various English folk-songs. A second bracket of these pieces were inspired by diverse sources, among them a Chopin Mazurka, a Landler from a Mahler Symphony, and a theme from a Schubert piano sonata, among others. Again I thought more highly of these evocations this time round, especially enjoying “Clouds”, a Debussy-like recreation of stillness, stunningly effective in its freedom and sense of far-flung purpose.

Swan Songs is a collection of settings which examines feelings and attitudes relating to existence and death, ranging from fear and anxiety through bitter irony to philosophical acceptance, using texts from various sources. Written originally for baritone voice and guitar in 1983, the performances I’ve been able to document have been mostly by women, with only David Griffiths raising his voice for the baritonal record. Here, as in the NZSM Memorial concert, the singer is Jenny Wollerman, as dignified and eloquent in speech as she is in song when delivering the opening “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons (it’s unclear whether Gibbons himself wrote the song’s words or if they were penned by someone else). Throughout the cycle, Jane Curry’s beautiful guitar-playing provides the “other half” of a mellifluous partnership with both voice and guitar gorgeously captured by producer Wayne Laird’s microphones.

Along with reiterations of parts of Gibbons’ work and a kind of “Swan swan” tongue-twister, we’re treated to a setting by Farquhar of his own text “Anxieties and Hopes”, with guitarist and singer interspersing terse and urgent phrases of knotted-up fears and forebodings regarding the imminence of death. As well, we’re served up a setting of the well-known “Roasted Swan” sequence from “Carmina Burana”, Jenny Wollerman poignantly delineating the unfortunate bird’s fate on the roasting spit. As in the concert presentation I found the effect of these songs strangely moving, and beautifully realised by both musicians.

As for the “Ring Round the Moon” set of dances, I suspect that, if I had the chance, I would want to hear this music played on almost any combination of instruments, so very life-enhancing and instantly renewable are its energies and ambiences. I’m therefore delighted to have its beauties, charms and exhilarations served up via the combination of violin and piano, which, as I remember, brought the live concert to a high old state of excitement at the end! And there’s a lot to be said for the process of reinventing something in an unfamiliar format which one thinks one already knows well.

What comes across even more flavoursomely in this version are the music’s angularities – though popular dance-forms at the time, Farquhar’s genius was to impart the familiar rhythms and the easily accessible tunes with something individual and distinctive – and the many touches of piquant harmony, idiosyncratic trajectory and impish dovetailing of figuration between the two instruments mean that nothing is taken for granted. Martin Riseley and Jian Liu give masterly performances in this respect – listen, for example, to the ticking of the clock leading into the penultimate Waltz for a taste of these musicians’ strength of evocation! Only a slight rhythmic hesitation at a point midway through the finale denies this performance absolutely unreserved acclaim, but I’m still going to shout about it all from the rooftops, and challenge those people who think they “know” this music to try it in this guise and prepare to be astounded and delighted afresh.

At last! Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven recordings for Rattle reach the Diabelli Variations


BEETHOVEN – Diabelli Variations
(33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Rattle CD RAT D070 2017

Early in 1819, Anton Diabelli, who was a music publisher in Vienna, and something of a dilettante composer, wrote a waltz, and invited all of the leading composers of the time in and around Vienna to compose a single variation on his work. Diabelli’s intention was to publish the collection as a complete set, planning to raise money for patriotic and humanitarian purposes relating to the recent Napoleonic Wars.

Included among the composers Diabelli approached were Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart , Johann Peter Pixis, Simon Sechter, the Archduke Rudolf, Wenzel Tomaschek , Jan Vorisek and Ludwig Van Beethoven. The young Franz Liszt, though not included in the original list, also contributed a variation, at the insistence of his teacher, Carl Czerny.

Beethoven’s response to the invitation has received fanciful treatment at the hands of his various biographers, with the much-derided Anton Schindler at the forefront of source material for the popular legend – that the composer refused to take part in the project, deriding Diabelli’s waltz as a Schusterfleck, or “Cobbler’s patch”, and only changed his mind when Diabelli offered to pay him handsomely, whereupon Beethoven determined to show Diabelli what he could do by quickly writing not one variation, but thirty-three! It’s now more readily accepted that Beethoven from the very start was interested in the idea, straightaway planning a considerable number of variations. And, contrary to what both Schindler and Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny claimed, Beethoven did not write the complete work “in a merry freak” (Czerny’s words), but worked slowly and fitfully on his sketches, completing twenty-three of the variations by the end of 1819 before laying them aside to finish both the Missa Solemnis and the late piano sonatas, then, early in 1823, returning to the work and completing the set of thirty-three (the mind boggles at the sheer creativity of all of this!).

DIabelli subsequently published Beethoven’s work as Vol.One of a two-volume set grandly titled “Vaterländischer Künstlerverein” (Patriotic Artist’s Association), the second volume of which contained the 50 “other” variations by the remaining composers! Since then the world has all but ignored the efforts of all of these but Beethoven’s, on behalf of the publisher’s modest but fruitful little creation.

Where Schindler did seem to “get it right”, in the view of most commentators, was in his remark that the composition of this work ‘amused Beethoven to a rare degree’, that it was written ‘in a rosy mood’, and that it was ‘bubbling with unusual humour’. Alfred Brendel, whose thoughts concerning the work Michael Houstoun frequently quotes in his fascinating notes reproduced in Rattle’s booklet, elsewhere cites another commentator, Wilhelm Von Lenz, a somewhat more reliable biographer than the enthusiastic but over-imaginative Schindler, Lenz calling Beethoven “the most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour” and the variations “a satire on their theme”.

To Brendel’s assertion that the “Diabellis” are “the greatest of all piano works”, Houstoun responds that he has “no argument” with such a view, and that the only comparable work in keyboard literature could be JS Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”. Houstoun comments further that for him, the “Goldbergs” deal with spiritual certainty, whereas with Beethoven’s work, all such boundaries are challenged. He makes the analogy of Beethoven trying to “punch holes in the very fabric of the cosmos” with this work, which seems to me another way of saying that the composer is taking nothing for granted, and wants to see if there’s something else beyond normal human perception.

The Rattle booklet as well contains Houstoun’s own thoughts on each of the variations, which to me seems an invaluable insight into how the pianist views not only the music as a whole, but the function of each of its parts – we are taken into the workshop of recreation, as it were, and given the chance to experience for ourselves how the interpreter’s thoughts and words relate to his delivery of the music.

To my ears Houstoun succeeds brilliantly in “making the word flesh” so to speak. With playing less “nuanced” throughout than is the case with some pianists’ I’ve heard, he gives his listeners a strongly direct reading of the music, enabling us to get to grips with the notes quickly, rather than us having to first get to grips with the interpreter’s playing of some of them! I think he’s also suggesting that we, as listeners, have to do some work ourselves on the huge range of possibilities the music is giving to us. An active, creative kind of listening rather than a passive, “washing over one” response is required, though Beethoven’s quixotic humour certainly helps keep one in thrall!

Having applied brushstrokes of wit, charm, excitement and thoughtfulness to his realisations of most of the pieces, Houstoun, with wonderful surety, then tackles the radically different world of the final five Variations, opening up realms of intensity which transcend what we’ve so far heard. The first of the group of three C Minor pieces prepares us for what follows, as the music gradually descends to the depths of sorrow and loneliness within a sound-world resembling that of the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier”, the Bach-like No.31 described by the pianist as “a searching lament” and given the title “beacon of sorrow”. After plumbing these depths, Houstoun then electrifies us with his playing of a briliant Handelian double-fugue, NOT, as an applause-garnering conclusion, but a monumental release of energy leading to Beethoven’s greatest “surprise” of all in this work – a finale in the form of a Minuet, here patiently and sublimely realised by the pianist, in his own words, “the perfect endless ending”, the music moving like planets slowly circling the sun, with cosmic, god-like serenity.

If you already have Michael Houstoun’s Rattle set of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, you will want this disc as an essential companion – and if you don’t have any of Houstoun’s Beethoven, then what better entry-point could you have than this, arguably the pianist’s finest single Beethoven recording? In a world already replete with recorded performances of this work, Houstoun’s can proudly take its place as one of the most strongly-focused and beautifully recorded – altogether, a most satisfying issue!

Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven on Rattle

BEETHOVEN – The Piano Sonatas
Michael Houstoun (piano)
Rattle RAT DO48 2014

Recording published by Rattle, a division of Victoria University Press 2014
(supported by Sir James Wallace and The Wallace Arts Trust)

(reviewed December 2014)

With his recently-released set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas recorded for Rattle Records, Michael Houstoun joins a select number of pianists who have recorded the cycle more than once. And though he’s in pretty stellar company, here, alongside luminaries such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim and Friedrich Gulda, with this latest issue Houstoun can, in my opinion, hold his head up proudly in their company.

Had the pianist’s previous cycle for Trust Records, dating from the mid-1990s, been better and more consistently recorded, we would have had two “classic” performances of the works to savour and enjoy, each wholly characteristic of Houstoun’s playing at the time of recording. Alas, that earlier set remains compromised in places by variable sound, the promise of the first instalment of the Middle Period” sonatas thwarted by later production efforts which to my ears don’t do the pianism throughout the rest of the cycle proper justice.

Happily, the latest set, recorded in the New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington by Steve Garden, in tandem with producer Kenneth Young and piano-tuner Michael Ashby, has caught a consistently true and (one or two reservations notwithstanding) eminently listenable sound-picture. It’s one that I can readily equate with what I heard of Houstoun’s playing in no less than three different venues during his 2013 concert performances of the cycle. I would still go back occasionally to that very first “Middle Period” Trust set of CDs to remind myself of how good Houstoun’s Beethoven was at that time, but it’s to the new set I would now almost unreservedly turn for a more far-reaching (and, of course more current) view of these works.

The presence and clarity of the sound is just one of the strengths of the new enterprise, though I would recommend that listeners to the set play the recordings at as high a volume setting as they dare, without offending neighbours, unsympathetic family members or musically recalcitrant pets. Before plunging into this “Beethovenian ocean” on my own, I had taken the set to a friend’s place to “sample” one of the discs, and the “Tempest” Sonata was chosen as a “test” piece – it didn’t impress as much as I had hoped, the sound seeming to lack both brightness and warmth as well as sufficient detail. But at home, and then at another friend’s house I listened at a higher volume – and the sound-picture was practically transformed! – now, the notes had plenty of “ring” and Houstoun’s detailing of the passage-work was opened up through being brought closer, and revealed as replete with interest.

A particular feature of the new set which I’ve really enjoyed is the arrangement of the sonatas upon each of the fourteen discs. Houstoun tells us in the accompanying booklet notes that back in the 1990s he initially resisted the idea of interfering with the published order of the works – so, by way of preparing them for his first public performance of the cycle he would play them through repeatedly “in order”. He gradually came to feel that in concert something different was needed, and so he devised seven programs, all of which featured sonatas from the composer’s different compositional periods. This proved so successful, that when it came time to repeat the cycle in 2013 the pianist made no changes to his “recital order”.

That same order is replicated on these new CDs, each of the seven recital programmes being allocated two discs. It makes for uncommonly satisfying listening, whether one decides to play any single CD or replicate any of the original recital programs. Unlike the “one-period-at-a-time” grouping of the sonatas in the previous Trust recordings, this newer project justly reflects the “holistic” way with which Houstoun conceived the undertaking right from the outset. To be fair, that first Trust set of the “Middle Period” sonatas was at the time a ground-breaking flagship venture, by no means assured of continuance after the first issue – so it was deemed necessary for each step to have a more “stand-alone” aspect.

How things have changed! – to the point where a new recording by Houstoun featuring all thirty-two of the sonatas was deemed not only possible but necessary! And how wonderful to have such a closely-associated sound-reminiscence of those actual recital programmes performed up and down the land during 2013!  So, when one turns to Programme One, on the set’s first two discs, one can begin that amazing journey all over again, with the pianist as a skilled and insightful guide. The thoughtfulness of Houstoun’s approach can be gleaned by his choice of the D Major Sonata Op.10 No.3 as the opening work, because, as he puts it “of its wonderful Largo”, what he goes on to call “Beethoven’s first truly great slow movement”.

Which brings me to mention of another of the new set’s qualities – its reproduction of the pianist’s own commentaries from the notes accompanying the live recitals, illuminating and enhancing our appreciation of what we hear at almost every turn. This was also a feature of the Trust issues, though Houstoun has rewritten these in accord with his “latest thoughts” – invariably the message is the same but worded differently, often more simply, as with the “refreshed” note about the “Waldstein” Sonata. (I do regret the omission of a footnote to the earlier set’s remarks about the E-flat Op.81a Sonata, usually subtitled “Les Adieux”, one which nicely made the point that Beethoven wanted his own description “Das Lebewohl” used in the published edition – in the new set, the traditional French subtitle stands at the head of the note once more, as if to say “Oh, well….”).

But the stylish, sturdily-bound booklet has much more – there’s a detailed, fluently-written biography of Houstoun penned by Charlotte Wilson, a true celebration of the pianist’s life and career, her account properly inclusive of all the people whose influence made a difference to the pianist’s life-course, as well as being revealingly candid in places (for example, I found the portrait of Houstoun’s relationship with his father somewhat chilling). Obviously written for local consumption (it has an engagingly first-name-parochial style), the essay provides an exhilarating, but nicely-balanced account of a remarkable career, one which, by dint of both success and setback through injury, has had its ups and downs, and emerged all the stronger.

Booklet and discs are beautifully and securely encased, with everything conveniently accessible, as per Rattle’s usual attractive standards of presentation – there’s a time-line of the pianist’s career for quick reference, a discography, and numerous photographs, both from different stages of Houstoun’s life and from his two Beethoven cycle recital series (the later ones in colour). Decorating both booklet and discs is detail from a painting by Christchurch-based artist Philip Trusttum, helping to give the issue a strongly-flavoured, uncompromisingly abstracted home-grown feel, which suits the enterprise perfectly.

As for this review, it’s obvious that to do full and detailed justice to Houstoun’s playing of the whole cycle would require a lengthy treatise that might take longer to read than it would the pianist to play through the music! But I thought that, in the midst of the inevitable generalities an examination of one of these “programmes” would give the reader something of a sense of its specific flavour, and an idea of the range and scope of the whole. With these objectives in mind I decided I would examine the first of them, and sneak in veiled references to other individual sonatas along the way of things, as opportunities  “crop up” to do so.

So, Programme One! – it begins with a hiss and a roar, as the opening declamation of Op.10 No.3 exuberantly announces its presence as would a character in an opera buffa. The music is a kind of comedy overture, replete with spontaneous energies, extravagant gestures, sly asides, quizzical looks and enigmatic smiles – and, while Houstoun isn’t a nudge-wink Shura Cherkassky kind of performer, his playing suggests something of this tumbling warmth and po-faced humour, with plenty of dynamic variation and flexibility of phrasing.  As one might expect he gives the “wonderful Largo” full measure, exchanging the comic mask for a deeply tragic one, and making the most of sequences like the wonderful ascending triplet passage which then tightens the screws on the tensions towards the conclusion, before breaking off and returning to the opening “stasis of sorrow” that frames the movement. The strength of his playing leaves a relatively dry-eyed impression at the movement’s end, but that’s in keeping with making coherent what’s still to come, the “tragedy to the mind and a comedy to the intellect” idea supported by the playfulness of both Menuetto and Finale. What marvellous music it is!

Then comes the first of the two “Fantasy-Sonatas” of Op.27 (the other one being the “Moonlight”, of course), here played and phrased a shade coolly at the outset, tempering its early romanticism, perhaps in deference to its more famous companion – though Houstoun revealingly muses in his notes that, for him, “Beethoven hasn’t quite made up his mind what to do” – and the touch of abruptness at the beginning certainly supports that view. Later in the Sonata Houstoun’s playing is less equivocal, for instance, giving full measure to the “held” chord that connects the scherzo with the heavenly-voiced third-movement adagio. In places like this one admires the connectiveness of the artist’s thinking about and playing of the music.

The bright, chirpy opening of the E Major Op.14 No.1 Sonata does emphasize the recording’s touch of dryness, though better this than too “swimmy” an acoustic – I like the slightly questioning air Houstoun brings to the first movement’s repeated ascending chromatic phrase, one whose delivery I find here more quizzical than the pianist’s description of “unsettling”, but certainly in consistent accord with what happens throughout. There’s a flexibility of response that to me suggests greater ease and circumspection than was the case with the more tightly-wound Trust performance. Something of the severity of Beethoven’s previous sonata, the “Pathetique”, does come across in Houstoun’s way with the Allegretto middle movement, a sense of sombre ritual, nicely “warmed” by the pianist during the major-key trio. But what a tour-de-force is his playing of the triplet-dominated finale, capturing the music’s “rolling-down-the-hill” exuberance and moments of quirky harmonic exploration in one fell swoop – a most exhilarating first-half closer!

An interval of sorts comes with a change of CD for the recital’s second half, opening with the Op.26 A-flat Sonata – a work which Houstoun describes as a “new beginning” for the composer’s use of sonata-form, one containing both a theme-and-variations movement, and a funeral march! The opening is the theme, resplendent and rich in its A-flat finery, to which Houstoun brings a fine nobility, before gently teasing out the variations, none of which are of the showy, flashy variety – though perhaps the last of them, with its more filigree aspect, sounds a tad more self-conscious than the rest. (Beethoven ushers it demurely out of sight at the end via a brief coda!)

Houstoun has always done well with this particular sonata, achieving miracles of finely-gradated touch in the scherzo, while relishing the music’s syncopated accents. But when it comes to the Funeral March movement, I have to say I prefer the pianist’s more expansive tempo on the earlier Trust recording. Compared with the newer, sterner reading, the former sounds more inwardly-felt, with the playing supported by a warmer and slightly more giving acoustic. This is especially noticeable in the drum-roll sequences, which, on the new Rattle recording convey to me a more dispassionate, almost abstracted impression – perhaps Houstoun was concerned that anything more theatrical and dramatic in manner might, as he put it in his notes, “sound meretricious”. Fortunately, the finale restores the music/listener relationship to a more even keel once again, Houstoun nicely realizing for us the babble of the semiquaver voices as they collect, intensify, dissipate, and then finally disappear, as abruptly as they first appeared.

Already these two discs have taken us on quite a musical journey, so to have the “Waldstein” Sonata at the recital’s end is akin to experiencing a kind of homecoming – I remember the live concerts consistently supporting that sense of completion in different ways, depending upon the works involved in the various traversals. With sonatas such as Programme Two’s Op.101 in A (No.28), Programme Five’s Op 109 in E (No.30) and Programme Six’s Op.110 in A-flat (No.31), the sense of “return” at their conclusion I found very strong and satisfying, in complete contrast to the programs that left one in wondrously transfigured worlds from which one gradually found one’s own way back afterwards! – such were Programme Three’s “Hammerklavier”, Programme Four’s “Appassionata” and (despite an overall sense of grand summation) the final programme’s stellar Op.111 – all far-reaching conclusions!

So it is, here – Houstoun’s way with the “Waldstein”, instantly engaging, nevertheless has a grand cumulative effect, proceeding from the brightly-alert opening pulsations and their contrasting lyrical counterweights to a rigorous engagement between the two in a working-out section, standpoints that are steadfastly restated at the recapitulation of the opening, but quite gloriously “worked out” by the time the movement’s concluding musings and final flourish come upon us. The deep-throated “song of the earth” that follows is beautifully voiced, the spaces as eloquently shaped as the notes, our progress through the void led instinctively to that matchless moment of impulse when the light from a single note points the way forward.

The way Houstoun takes us through all of this is an art that conceals art, one which repays the closest attention in kind. Though one feels the inevitability of the pianist’s conception throughout, there’s still an “in situ” chemistry of engagement that transfixes every moment – it’s a quality that I’ve come to associate with Houstoun, that he can persuade you of the rightness of his interpretation at the time of listening, even when, in retrospect, you might find you prefer what you’ve heard others do. Here in the Waldstein, there’s no doubt that a kind of greatness is at work, as each of the work’s episodes is characterized so strongly and sharply – one doesn’t think of isolating any particular sequence, but instead, of simply “going with the flow” and reflecting on life’s richness and diversity when the music finally leaves off.

Others that stand out for me among these recorded performances are those programme-concluding works I’ve already mentioned – and, of course, that’s the way any kind of assemblage works best, like the Biblical wine for the guests at the marriage-feast at Cana, where the “best” was also kept to last!  Each of those works speak for themselves, in a sense, though it would be true to say that they show Houstoun’s playing at his most inspired, the music’s greatness matched by the pianist’s response accordingly. It would be wrong of me to make much of one performance at the expense of others, but I thought Houstoun’s playing of the “Appassionata”, as in the recital (Programme Four), some of the most remarkably abandoned pianism I’ve ever heard from him (the playing literally brought the Wellington Town Hall audience to its feet!).

At the spectrum’s other end, of course, is the final sonata’s concluding Arietta movement – surely one of the most remarkable, inter-galactic acts of creation ever devised by a human being – while my allegiance to the young Daniel Barenboim’s first EMI recording of this work as a “desert-island choice” remains unshaken, Houstoun’s performance is a “thinking-man’s alternative” to the likes of the more visceral, spontaneous-sounding Barenboim. And, in any case, from the beginnings of those trilled murmurings after the near-manic “boogie-woogie” variation has subsided, Houstoun “has me in thrall” right to the piece’s end, as overwhelmingly as any. Yes, I know it’s supposedly all in the music, and the performer is merely the conduit through which it passes – but that’s a superficial observation. It DOES make a difference who’s sitting at the piano – and with Michael Houstoun there, that difference has its own precious distinction.

By any standards this new set is a wondrous achievement from all concerned.




Yvette Audain and friends “in the groove” – a new CD


Featuring Yvette Audain (saxophone)
With: Hong Yul Yang (piano)
Katherine Hebley (‘cello)
Damon Key (soprano sax)
Donald Nicholls (tenor sax)
Nicola Haddock (baritone sax)
Zyia-Li Teh (tenor sax)
Andrew Uren (baritone sax)
Anthony Young (conductor, “bulletproof petals”)

Tracks: Grooves Unspoken / Hazine (Treasure) / Meditations upon Nasreddin Hoca
Hold Fast / An Irksome Vengeance / bulletproof petals / A Charleston Kick With Steel Caps

The CD launch at “Meow”, Edward St., Wellington

Featuring Yvette Audain (soprano sax, clarinet, recorder, Irish whistle)
with Jonathan Berkahn (piano and accordion)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Yvette Audain modestly commented beforehand that what would make her night would be at least TWO people in the audience for the launch of her CD “Grooves Unspoken”. Well, she got her wish and more, besides – not a great deal more, but those of us who were there were caught up in the creative and recreative web and waft of the music and its performance. And with the surroundings and amenities available at “Meow” in Edward Street in Wellington, we wanted for nothing as we listened to and grooved along with both Yvette and her fellow-performer Jonathan Berkahn – the latter had told me before the performance that he was still getting to grips with some of the material, but to my ears this wasn’t evident in his playing, versatile musician that he is!

The two musicians pretty well replicated the first four tracks on Audain’s CD, Jonathan Berkahn “filling in” more than adequately for the pianist featured on the CD, Hong Yul Yang in the title piece “Grooves Unspoken” and also the lovely “Meditations Upon Nasreddin Hoca”. The other two tracks featured the composer herself, demonstrating her versatility in playing both saxophone and clarinet. The former instrument evoked plenty of exotic ambience and colour in a piece called “Hazine” (Treasure), while the latter’s tones paid homage to Audain’s own part-Scottish ancestry in “Hold Fast” (the McLeod family’s motto!), mixing plenty of melodic fluidity with equal amounts of rhythmic vitality.

Hearing these four tracks “live” gave oceans of extra atmosphere to my later listening to the CD – the choreography of interaction, the physical gesturing and the direct contact with the tones and timbres of the instruments in question came back readily to my subsequent listening sessions. The CD had been planned beautifully as regards order, the sounds  of each track seeming to effortlessly give way to each instance of organic flow or marked contrast as it happened. Most appropriately the album (as did the evening) began with a piece of unashamed homage to a past giant, whose music Audain acknowledged as a formative experience – this was Dave Brubeck, whose signature album “Time Out” had obviously made a telling impression, judging by the “echoes” present in Audain’s beautifully-constructed piece, very appropriately named “Grooves Unspoken”.

From this we were taken elsewhere, to places replete with Middle-Eastern flavours and gypsy-like impulses. This was the aforementioned “Hazine”, a patient, measured and evocative creation whose character gradually shed its rhythmic carriage in favour of freer, more ambient sequences of figuration – spaces opened up via long-breathed notes and occasional pitch-bending, all of which conjured up a real sense of time passing, almost Omar Khayyam-like, into oblivion.

Not quite as overtly exotic, but as suggestive regarding different moods and realms was “Meditations Upon Nasreddin Hoca”. The work was made up of a number of ritualistic exchanges between piano and saxophone (again, Hong Yui Yang was the CD’s excellent pianist) – voices striving to unite but separated by distance or circumstance. A wide-eyed opening evoked a soul contemplating “the inverted bowl we call the sky”, one that was partly delighting in, partly despairing at the star-clusters and their loneliness. Whatever answer it was that came from the lonely spaces took the form of an invitation to dance and exult, which piano and sax did, revelling in the interchanges, before again seeming to part company. I loved the smoky lower register of Audain’s instrument, even if she very briefly seemed to lose her line to breathiness on a single high note, but recovering almost immediately and taking up with the piano once again. Throughout the two instruments would contrive to separate, join and separate again, bringing something new to each exchange after tasting their individually-wrought moments of disjointedness. The final exchange, an Eastern-flavoured dance, by turns sinuous and angular, re-established the “together but different” character of the interactions throughout, concluding with an exciting and confident flourish.

“Hold Fast” took its name from the motto of the Scottish McLeod clan, to which the composer’s grandmother belonged. The opening sounded a kind of clarion call, perhaps a summoning of the said clan, replete with Scottish snap and pipe-skirl, the declamations occasionally giving way to startling moments of rhythmic impulse, complete with occasional foot-stampings. One of Audain’s earliest compositions, the piece aptly honoured a tradition of both song and dance.

I loved the title “An Irksome Vengeance” and thought the combination of clarinet and ‘cello most splendidly explored the ensuing timbral concoctions, as well as staying true to the composer’s aim of keeping a basic pulse to the fore. I can’t really speak for musical currencies such as “post-grunge” and “progressive rock”, but thought that the music’s dynamism and knees-and-elbows angularities were, to say the least, arresting. And I thought the liveliness of the exchanges didn’t let up, even through the more lyrical sequences. Fantastic playing by both Audain and the ‘cellist Katherine Hebley – the ending itself was a treat, a masterpiece of po-faced comedy. One assumed the “vengeance” in question had by that time been wrought, or, alternatively, tossed aside as too “irksome” for any further consideration!

All three of the final trio of pieces on the CD seemed to me to particularly command the attention – the second piece, “bulletproof petals”, scored for a quartet of saxophones, sounded an outlandish note at the beginning, before taking a five-note figure and “deconstructing” it with no little glee. A wistful phrase was solemnly passed around the group, though like children told to be serious, splutters and giggles ensued. The wistful phrase returned, this time more formally and contrapuntally, and just as it seemed something imposing and grand was welling up out of the growing confidence, the splutters and giggles returned – one was left with unanswered questions, such as, “Was the “thick skin” of the composer’s explanation of the piece too easily penetrated?” and “Did the creative resolve buckle under the weight of derision too soon?”

But my favorite piece on the album had to be the final one, “A Charleston Kick with Steel Caps”, a piece that never let up in its “swing”, through different tempi and rhythmic trajectories – in fact, so involved was the CD’s “live” audience with the performance that they were ready to applaud at the first hint, midway through, of a final cadence, all too ready to deprive themselves of a wonderfully raucous buildup to a characteristically upbeat throwaway ending. I thought the music had the spirit of the times – a trifle Kurt Weill-ish in places, even, as well as its composer’s fingerprints on things like the derivation of the accompanying rhythms of the final section of the dance from earlier in the work – organic thinking which involved all of the instruments in melodic, or motivic as well as harmonic contributions to the whole.

Briefly, I thought the disc’s contents a happy amalgam of “entertainment” and “provocative” pieces – in this respect I thought particularly well of the last three works on the CD, culminating in, for me, a piece that seemed to sum up Yvette Audain’s achievement in making her playing such a gift to all kinds of sensibility. This is not to under-appreciate the other, earlier pieces, just as bagatelles, divertimenti and serenades are the sunnier sides of deeper purposes. “Grooves Unspoken” is a delight, an uninhibited and unashamed self-portrait of creative impulse that Audain can be justly proud of.

(Visit Yvette Audain’s website at for further information)

Jenny McLeod’s “Peter Pan” music on Naxos


The Emperor and the Nightingale (narrator and orchestra) / Rock Concerto / Three Celebrations for Orchestra

The Emperor and the Nightingale: Helen Medlyn (narrator) / Kirstin Eade (solo flute)

Rock Concerto: Eugene Albulescu (piano) / Bridget Douglas (flute)

Conductor: Uwe Grodd

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

 NAXOS 8.572671

After the splendid concert given by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra featuring Jenny McLeod’s The Emperor and the Nightingale as part of the NZ International Festival of the Arts Series, it was interesting re-adjusting one’s thoughts towards an audio-only presentation of the work, included on this splendid recent CD. In fact, coming back to it in the wake of the concert enhanced my enjoyment of both experiences, and stimulated a lot of thinking regarding the respective merits of sound and vision as communication tools in themselves.

Jenny McLeod has herself been a nightingale of sorts, one whose song has taken a variety of tones, characters and intentions over a compositional career which has seen her delve into and work through a number of stylistic preoccupations. Formative studies in Europe with Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen advanced her early avant-garde impulses, alongside of which she was able to identify and explore aspects of this country’s bicultural heritage with music-theatre works like Earth and Sky (1968) and Under the Sun (1970).

She concerned herself for a while with attempting to integrate popular styles of music into classical forms (e.g. her Rock Sonatas for piano), but then became interested in an innovative harmonic theory propounded by Dutch composer Peter Schat, the “Tone Clock” Theory. McLeod based a number of her compositions on this method. More recently she has become involved with writing church music for use by Maori groups, an involvement which led her to being asked to write a piece about an historical event involving an ancestor of Whanganui Maori, Hohepa Te Umuroa (the result being the recent NZ International Arts Festival opera Hohepa).

Here on this new CD, it’s McLeod’s “popular neoclassical” period that we’re largely concerned with, music whose approachability would surprise anybody whose experience of the composer’s work hadn’t included her “pop-influenced” output. As McLeod herself put it in her program notes, “this is the music of a composer who for a time refused “grow up”, declaring that writing and performing music should be “enjoyable”…”

That enjoyment comes across in spadefuls throughout McLeod’s setting for narrator and orchestra of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story The Emperor and the Nightingale. The Arts Festival concert referred to above paired the work with perhaps the most well-known of “narrator-and orchestra” stories, that of Peter and the Wolf with music by Prokofiev – though comparisons were scarcely in order, as the latter was completely reworked, dispensing with a narrator and featuring an animated film to present the story along with the music.

In McLeod’s Anderson setting, Helen Medlyn’s storyteller-delivery bars no holds, her projection as vivid and as wholehearted as if she were performing the piece for a packed auditorium – rather than overpowering the listener in a domestic environment, I found the larger-than-life characterizations she evokes a perfect match for the orchestral panoply with its multifarious colorings and textures and its extremes of loud and soft, weight and delicacy – in fact her voice is used as another orchestral instrument, and the Naxos recording comes to the party most satisfyingly (unlike some other “speaker-and-music” recordings I’ve heard which seem to deny the participants any sort of sonic relationship!)

McLeod cleverly differentiates the music for the “clockwork” as opposed to the real nightingale: the clockwork bird’s melodies are proscribed, angular and turning in on themselves, as opposed to the freer, more improvisatory figurations of the real bird – and the sense of everybody “taking-up” the mechanical tune is splendidly conveyed, with weight and colour. It’s all the more shocking, then, when the clockwork begins to malfunction, and the bird’s song ceases – the music characterizing the emperor’s resulting malaise could have come from Kodaly’s Hary Janos.

I’m pleased flutist Kirstin Eade is credited in the booklet with the flute solos depicting the nightingale, because they’re wonderful – gorgeously turned, and deftly characterized with so many colourings. Alongside her, the orchestral detailing, so magically and unhurriedly wrought by the composer, is here beautifully realized by the NZSO’s contingent of star players.

Three Celebrations for Orchestra date from 1983, though the work was revised by the composer a couple of years ago. The opening “Journey through Mountain Parklands” is classic “road music” at the start – sounds which push forward and throw their ambiences in all directions, defining the range and scope of what’s to follow.  It’s all gloriously tonal and accessible, with strands of texture that arrest the ear, such as the saxophone solo lines, which lead to gentler,more settled evocations before the scene’s underlying grandeur takes over again, percussive textures adding their voices to the driving momentums.

Nostalgia informs the gentler second movement, an invocation of Pukerua Bay, near Wellington. A kind of wistful tenderness winds through the opening, the music allowing for occasional irruptions of pleasure and excitement – would Malcolm Arnold have written in a similar vein had he visited the country and concocted some “New Zealand Dances”? The third episode has the title A&P Show –  the opening a riot of glittering energies, combining the bustle of visitors with the strut and swagger of performers and showpeople – there are Copland-esque, rodeo-like touches at one point! The music allows for both reflection and purposeful impulse, with the final pages generating plenty of colourful activity, the “rodeo-motif” prominent again just before the whiplash close.

Last on the disc is the Rock Concerto. The music actually began life as a “Rock Sonata” for solo piano, written for the gifted seventeen year-old pianist Eugene Albulescu at the instigation of his teacher, Bruce Greenfield; but Albulescu subsequently requested that McLeod recast the work as a concerto. McLeod calls aspects of the music “very much of our own time”, while referring in both spirit and style to composers of earlier times – “distant friends” as she calls them.  The spirit of Gershwin colours some of the more reflective, lyrical moments of the work, though I confess to finding other parts of the writing surprisingly slight of expression. McLeod warns the listener, it’s true, that “those in search of something deeper and darker must look elsewhere…”

Not so the middle movement – subtitled “Elegy for Charlie French” (a friend of the composer’s who died of Aids), the music gradually colours its deceptively simple opening with darker hues, the expression eventually reaching a point of utterance whose candor and sobriety are appropriately moving. The darknesses dissolve somewhat, as the poise of the opening returns, though l liked the bitter-sweet strands the composer threaded though the utterances of the closing pages.

The finale is all angular energy – the composer marks the music allegro giocoso, and translates it herself as “swinging and robust”, an apt description. In true pragmatic, Baroque-composer fashion,  McLeod indicates that each of the movements of the work can be played independently. Is it all too much of a good thing? One senses that, as with whatever she was engaged with, McLeod was “on a mission”, the music enthusiastically encouraging her dictum “it should be enjoyable”. And there will be plenty of music-lovers prepared to go along with that.