Roger Wilson’s and Guy Donaldson’s “Son vecchio ma robusto” tribute to age and experience at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

“Son vecchio ma robusto” (Seniors, but still in form)
Reflections on Maturity – a programme of songs presented by Roger Wilson (baritone) and Guy Donaldson (piano)

Music by Brahms, Schubert, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lilburn

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace , Wellington

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2024

Judging from their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed showing at St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Wednesday, baritone Roger Wilson and pianist Guy Donaldson seem all set to take Palmerston North’s Globe Theatre Matinee Concert Series presentation by storm this coming weekend when they repeat the occasion this coming Sunday afternoon. Here, their performance of the programme, “Son vecchio ma robusto”, a collection of various vocal-and-piano observations regarding age and experience, absolutely delighted a goodly number of regular St.Andrews lunchtime concert cognoscenti.

Jointly describing their presentation as “a whimsical approach to senior years”, the pair have ample cause to celebrate a fruitful musical partnership, which began as far back as 1976, Roger Wilson having since then frequently sung with Guy Donaldson as a piano accompanist and under his baton as a choral conductor. I did hear a stirring “Messiah” in Palmerston North (actually from the timpanist’s seat on that notable occasion when I too was a “performer”) featuring both musicians in their respective roles, but regret I wasn’t able to witness their later collaboration in Schubert’s iconic song-cycle “Winterreise” – still, the occasion obviously remains a vibrant memory for those lucky enough to have heard it.

How fortunate, therefore, to have something both different and innovative served up for our pleasure by these two experienced and ultra-capable musicians. There are plenty of songs, light and serious, about ageing, and music is obviously one of the most life-enhancing ways to help deal with the process, whether one is a performer or a listener – Wilson and Donaldson hit the spot almost invariably with their choices of repertoire, with only the strange Stravinsky song (augmented by a spoken narrative) about a Bear not doing very much for me at all.

The programme enterprisingly printed translations of the songs, putting us in touch with many of the varied, expressive nuances employed by the performers, which obviously enhanced our enjoyment. Thus, in the very first song, by Brahms, “Keinen hat es noch gereut” , one recounting an old man’s retelling of his youthful adventures, we could hear how the performers responded to the composer’s “bringing out” of the music’s energies and subtler nuances in the vocal narrative and in the piano’s use of different trajectories, both depicting different stages of life.

Two Schubert songs which followed markedly contrasted attitudes to life in general, the first “Greisengesang” (An Old Man’s Song), expressing forthright responses to both outward cold and harshness, and inner warmth and feeling, the voice expressing the territories covering these differences and the piano remarkably sentient in its response to the changes. Perhaps because I was so looking forward to the following “Der Einsame” (The Solitary One) I felt some disappointment in being able to relish so little of the character’s “enjoyment” Zufriedenheit) of his “single” life in the performance, here given at what seemed to me slightly too brisk a tempo for the song, and with little obvious self-satisfaction in his “gemutlich” contentment.

A different world was given us by the three Ravel songs which were the ailing composer’s final compositions, written for a film whose subject was Don Quixote, and in which the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin was to play the title role. Ravel completed three of the four commissioned songs but his growing illness prevented him completing the project. The composer’s friend and colleague Jacques Ibert was able to write four new songs for the film, though Ravel’s work has remained in the repertoire.

The three songs present the knight of the sorrowful countenance firstly as a lover, then a principled hero, and finally even a joyful reveller. First came the “Chanson Romanesque”, a sinuously-rhythmed and suggestively-hued Spanish serenade, which was followed by an intensely-imploring prayer to Saint Michael for purity and chastity as a knight – singer and pianist at one, the voice conveying steadfast virtue, and the piano underlining the sentiment with gently sonorous organ-like tones. Finally, the knight declares his simple enjoyment of drink with some Falstaff-like roisterings, accompanied by suitably florid pianistic gestures – a great song, here lustily shared with an appreciative audience!

Ibert’s “La Mort de Don Quichotte” was no less involving, here – a sultry Habanera rhythm conveyed the song’s plethora of emotion, the singer having all the time in the world to reflect on the character’s delineation of the “happy isle of death” as conveyed by the famed book’s telling of the tale, and the pianist colouring, echoing and reflecting the words’ emotions through to a “time standing still” postlude – very beautiful!

Each of Francis Poulenc’s Two “Chansons Villageoises” (with words by Maurice Fombeure) presented old age in unvarnished terms via characters who had suffered hardship and loss – the first, “Le Mendiant” (The Beggar) is old Jean Martin, with his sack and gnarled dogwood stick, found dead on the ice, and is a kind of cautionary socialist-like tale warning people to take pity on those who have little or nothing – one day all such Jean Martins will rise in revolt and take revenge! Roger Wilson’s histrionic abilities made the most of this “day of reckoning” scenario, with Guy Donaldson’s pounding, vengeful piano sonorities similarly taking no prisoners! The second song “Le retour du sergent” painted a somewhat grimmer version of “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”, with the old soldier returned home and alternating between bitter anger and heartfelt sadness at the loss of his friends on the battlefield! – again vivid characterisation and remorseless silences at the end.

A third song by Poulenc, “La Carpe”, opened with a dark stillness whose constant repetition underlined the near-timelessness of the fish’s existence as observed by humankind – a somewhat odd choice for the recital but perhaps suggesting something of the tranquility/emptiness of an aged person’s world. It had a piquancy which in a sense qualified its presence to a reasonable extent. In terms of such a process I found myself unequal to the task of figuring out what Igor Stravinsky’s song “The Bear” was doing in such company, and decided I would leave the business of expressing its relevance to abler minds and cyber-pens! No such reservation accompanied my reaction to the inclusion of Douglas Lilburn’s well-known and quintessentially Kiwi song-cycle, “Sings Harry”, one which Roger Wilson has well-nigh made his own upon the occasions I’ve heard him perform the work.

Here, from the first, bardic-like piano notes was an evocation of an older, more rooted-in-the-soil rural New Zealand expressed in a characterful vernacular that owed its place to nowhere else and took pride in its self sufficiency. Roger Wilson and Guy Donaldson became, for a few treasurable moments, the authentic bringers and declaimers of these “once the days were clear” times, tracing and fleshing out those same moments as enduring memories and resonating self-truths. The heart of the cycle has for me always been “The Flowers of the Sea”, and the voice and piano became as one, here, with the tide and the wind as the composer unerringly “placed” all of us within something of an eternal action of being – to which the concluding song “I remember” took us in a return to the childhood farm, and the hill over which the hawk forever flies – very moving.

In one sense the Lilburn/Glover cycle was the perfect way in which to conclude the programme – but despite the outrageous nature of the iconically non-PC Flanders and Swann song “Have some Madeira, m’dear!”which followed as an encore, its Rabelaisian performance here was an unmitigated delight, with the performers literally giving it all they’d got in terms of characterful roguishness. It was in a sense a “Do not go gentle into that good night” gesture which rounded off the tongue-in-cheek “growing old disgracefully” aspect of the programme! Palmerstonians should on no account miss it when these splendid performers take the stage at the city’s Globe Theatre on Sunday 28th April at 2:30pm.

Schubert’s “Winterreise” a truly unforgettable journey at St.Mark’s, Woburn for HVCM

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
SCHUBERT – Winterreise  (Winter Journey) D.911

Will King (baritone)
Nicholas Kovacev (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Friday 2nd July 2021

I was brought up to believe that Franz Schubert was one of music’s most tragic figures, one whose circumstances were marked by privation, neglect and suffering – his was the archetypal Romantic scenario, fuelled by conjecture and fantasy, and bolstered up with a certain emphasis on the “tragic” aspects of his numerous works. Consequently, his song-cycle “Winterreise” came to be regarded as the ultimate nihilistic will and testament of the suffering and misunderstood creative artist, an outpouring of despair and disillusionment fit to be compared with the visionary paintings of the last years of Vincent Van Gogh.

Though such a made-to-order recipe supporting this idea of incomprehensible genius spurned was taken up as proof of greatness and institutionalised as such over many years, the truth of the matter serves not to diminish Schubert’s creative stature, but to actually enhance it, and bring it closer in spirit and intent to life as we ordinary mortals understand it. Schubert was certainly known and recognised as a creative artist in Vienna during his lifetime (a letter apparently addressed to “Franz Schubert, famous composer in Vienna” has been documented as reaching him from Germany!).

He was for a long time considered Beethoven’s inferior – his symphonies and piano sonatas were unfavourably compared with those of the older composer, and even the stellar qualities of the songs seemed to reinforce the attitude that he was little more than a “miniaturist”. The piano sonatas particularly suffered from neglect – Sergei Rachmaninov was, in the 1920s, amazed to learn that Schubert had written any at all! Today we know differently – and we are able to “place” more significantly in the scheme of things the incredible emotional range of Schubert’s music, and its ambiguity of expression.  As with Beethoven, one is left with a “great divide” between works of geniality and great voyages upon a sea of troubles – the coexistence of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and the Op.132 String Quartet, for example, can be equated in Schubert’s oeuvre with that of the “Trout” Quintet and, say, the String Quintet, or, again, with this great song-cycle Winterreise.

Schubert’s early death, as a result of syphilis and its horrific treatment, has also “coloured” his achievement as a composer (Franz Grillparzer’s much-quoted epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes” encouraged the “tragic figure” image), one to which the subject of Winterreise has also contributed. Interestingly, Schubert had seen only half of the twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller when he began composing the cycle in 1827, telling his friend Joseph von Spaum when emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation that he had  written ”some terrifying songs”, and sang and played for his circle of friends the whole of the first book. Spaum recalled the disturbance created by the songs’ “black mood” as well as the composer’s Beethoven-like response to his friends’ bewilderment that they would eventually “hear and understand them”. The second group of songs were completed later that year; and in the time left to him afterwards Schubert produced some of his greatest works, including the String Quintet, the E-flat Piano Trio, the last three Piano Sonatas, and the remaining songs collected and published after his death as Schwanengesang.

Wilhelm Müller was, of course the poet whose verses Schubert had already set in his earlier song-cycle of 1823, Die schöne Müllerin, a group of poems which pursue a definite narrative and culminate with the hero’s death, Schubert’s music transforming the somewhat stock-in-trade sentiments of the German Romantic literary tradition into sound-vignettes of infinitely suggestive depths of emotional insight, culminating in the extraordinary Des Baches Wiegenlied (“The Brook’s Lullaby”), where the brook consoles the lifeless form of the hero beneath its waters with words of rest and peace. Here, in Winterreise, by contrast, there is no rest, no peace, merely loneliness and isolation, loss and bitterness for the  traveller. One of the main differences between the cycles is in the piano part, in the earlier cycle readily colourful, physical, descriptive and engaging, while in the latter disconcerting in its austerity (I found the comments reproduced in tonight’s programme attributed to Benjamin Britten regarding the piano part of Winterreise most illuminating, stressing the piano’s conjuring up of mood and detail with the use of so few notes).

I’d heard only one live Winterreise performance previous to this present one  from Will King and Nicholas Kovacev at St.Mark’s Church in Woburn, Lower Hutt – this was a sobering ten years previously, from tenor Keith Lewis and pianist Michael Houstoun, at Waikanae, a reading that was especially notable for its progress towards a transcendence that “caught” the music in a mesmeric spell over the last five songs of the cycle, the numbed, essential bleakness of spirit conveyed with a feeling of “other-worldliness” underlined at the end by the traveller’s “passing over” into the realm of the ghostly hurdy-gurdy man, a place where earthly considerations seemed no longer to matter. Lewis and Houstoun seemed to me able to balance the sense of a palpable journey made by the lovelorn traveller with the equally pressing idea of there being no resolution of the spirit’s predicament to hope for, the bleakness of such an outlook in line with Schubert’s reported words describing his “terrifying songs”.

After what I thought was a slightly tentative beginning to Gute Nacht (Goodnight) from pianist Nicholas Kovacev, the playing thereupon seemed hand-in-glove with Will King’s beautifully “sounded” opening phrase – there was intensity of focus from both musicians, with the singer able to “illume from within” a word or phrase whose expression coloured the whole line, whether in anticipation or following. The third verse’s emphasis at Was soll ich langer weilen  (Why should I stay longer) was beautifully countered by the fourth’s sweetness at its major-key beginning, and further thrown into relief by the darkened minor-key final line. Next, the agitated opening of Die Wetterfahne (The Weather-vane) brought forth plenty of give and take of vocal intensities, concluding with almost desperate anger, which took on different, more desolate forms in the two songs leading up to Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree), dark and melancholy for Gefrorene Tränen  (Frozen Tears), and unsettled and troubled during Erstarrung (Turned to Ice), King managing to convey distress while phrasing with such elegance and variety.

Der Lindenbaum is, I think, the cycle’s first great in-transit “signpost”, given here with tender loveliness from both singer and pianist, the voice opening and radiating as the line rises and reaches the light at the top. King doesn’t make a “meal” of the minor key-change, darkening his tone, and suggesting the heartbreak without coarsening his delivery, singer and pianist eloquently making the beauty of the music’s return to an equanimity of sorts the true moment of catharsis. All the more bleak then the following song Wasserflut (Flood), here, with its Denis Glover-like bird call (a more desolate “Quardle Oodle Ardle Wardle Doodle”) reiteration of the opening figuration. From soft beginnings, King arched the line beautifully upwards each time, varying the intensities of its climax, all the while haunted by the repeated piano motif. The following Auf dem Flusse (On the River) energised this bleakness with a stepwise tread, King and Kovacev making the most of its fearful progress, surfaces crusted with still ice, yet surging fearfully beneath.

Rūckblick (Looking back) was here a classic “longing to return” moment, King and Kovacev conveying the torn, distraught emotions of one who longed to escape while wishing to go back to a happier time, with “zwei Mädchenaugen glühten” (a girl’s two eyes sparkling). The contrast with the ghostly, fatalistic Irrlicht (Will-o’the-Wisp) – lovely breath-control from the singer at the song’s end – and the ritualistic Rast (Rest), with its dramatic crescendi moving from physical stillness to inner turmoil, brought the wanderer to exhausted sleep and to dreams (Fruhlingstraume – Dream of Spring), King and Kovacev here charting a course between escapist delight and bitter reality with strongly-characterised focus. The disconsolate trudge of the ensuing Einsamkeit (Loneliness) turned gradually to desperation, Kovacev’s piano agitated and King’s tones dramatic and laden, the voice searching for some relief from the gloom. With the cycle’s second great “signpost” – the song Die Post (The Post) – the gloom momentarily lifted, King’s Wanderer running the gamut of emotion from expectation to disillusionment as the song tripped bitterly and ironically onwards.

Der greise Kopf (The grey head) which followed caught the desolation of the singer’s feelings of age and mortality though still a young man, conveyed by emptied-out vocal tones most effectively and dramatically. And both the crow (Die Krähe) and the falling leaves of Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) brought a sense of the traveller’s abandonment by nature itself, the singer desperately beseeching the crow to remain faithful, and then despairing as the last leaf fell blithely from a tree to the ground, King’s long-breathed legato lines a dying farewell to hope. With Im Dorfe (In the Village) Kovacev’s piano phrases smugly delineated the sleeping villagers’ dreams as King’s bitter tones renounced their world before taking his leave, and, with the added weight of the piano’s vigorous gesturings confronting the winter (Der sturmische Morgen), with near-manic phrases and exclamations, for me the third of the cycle’s “signposts” delineating a change or intensification of direction.

A sudden contrast of mood with Tauschung (Deception) suggested the onset of delirium as the traveller pursued a “dancing light” to which he confessed abandonment despite its possible “trickery” – King’s voice brought out vagaries of hope and disillusionment, which the following song, Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) gently but sombrely corrected, taking him further into the darkness of forsakenness. I thought King and Kovacev did so well with the next song, Das Wirthaus (The Inn), the almost ritualistic splendour and sacramental peace of the graveyard’s surroundings richly conveyed by the singing and playing, here, the tones then taking on a feeling of hollow, empty grandeur as the traveller realised that there was nowhere for him to rest.

What, then, of the triumverate of deception, delirium and disillusionment embodied by the final three songs? King and Kovacev generated a desperate kind of  foolhardiness, a delusional heroism with the first of the three, Mut (Courage), the voice almost manic in its upward thrusts, an amalgam of defiance and desperation,  before the trance-like Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) gripped the singer with its hymnal focus and vision, the voice expressing wonderment at first and then disbelief and sadness, the piano resonating with the singer’s feelings as the tones died away. All that remained was Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), the encounter with the old street musician, the piano articulating the haunting repeated refrain, the singer’s tones bleached of emotion and feeling, the heartbreakingly naïve concluding plea to the old man to be his companion made so focused and resonant as to linger on in the silence that followed, until we in the audience were allowed by the musicians to break the spell and show our (by then) gobsmacked appreciation of what we had just heard and experienced! Very great credit to these two on the occasion of a stunning achievement!

“The Older the Better” – a triumph of age and experience at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Hens’ Teeth presents:
(Part of WTF! 2020)

MC – Kate JasonSmith
Starring: Coral Trimmer, Sunny Amey, Dame Kate Harcourt. Linn Lorkin, Helen Moulder, Rose Beauchamp, Jan Bolwell and Margaret Austin

Producer – Kate JasonSmith
Lighting – Lisa Maule
Stage Manager – Johanna Sanders
Technical Operator – Niamh Campbell-Smith
Illustration and Graphic Design – Emma Cook

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington
Thursday, 3rd December 2020

(until 20th December)

A footnote to the show’s title above the cast list in the programme reads: “The performers you may or may not see, tonight….”. When putting the show together around the talents of three ninety-plus performers, Dame Kate Harcourt, Coral Trimmer and Sunny Amey, the producer of “The Older, the Better” Kate JasonSmith found so many willing participants among what she called “a fabulous collection of Gold Card performers” that she was able to devise a “revolving support cast”, one whose membership would change for every performance.

It would be hard to imagine this, the opening night, being bettered, given that the show ostensibly and spectacularly revolved around the three performance “dames” (one of whom, of course, already has that official title), the rest being the “glittering gold-carders” who made up the “supporting” roles – though the beauty of the presentation was that there were no seams or lessenings of inspirational flow as turn followed star turn, with each of the “acts” offering its own characterfully-contrasted cache of distinctive delights (excuse the alliteration! – it just slipped out!)….

In keeping with the inclusive spirit which had gravitationally drawn this galaxy of heavenly bodies together, we in the audience were promptly invited to also audition for the show – as an audience! – and after agreeing, were put through our paces, demonstrating “audience behaviours” (clapping, laughing, dancing – someone even suggested “paying”!)….. I thought our “murmuring in sympathy” efforts creditable , but needing more conviction, more FEELING! – however, then, when we laughed uproariously at one of the MC Kate JasonSmith’s jokes, we clinched the role – “This audience is fine! – don’t bother to bring that other one in!” she promptly carolled towards the entranceway! – and so the show began, introduced by Kate JasonSmith, most interestingly as “Nine lovely women, and eight lovely costumes!” Oo-er!!

It would be churlish to self-indulgently “give the show away” by describing too many of the delights that followed in detail – but when “the talent” was summoned with the cry, “Talent! – Talent ON THE SET!” – the uproar that greeted the appearance of Dame Kate Harcourt to begin things in earnest was heart-warming! We got from her a vividly- coloured picture of a sassy character called Maud, who was enjoying life at ninety-three, insisting at one point that this was the oldest she had been! Putting it like that made for pandemonium in the aisles!

We had no sooner recovered when the fabulous Linn Lorkin was at the piano weaving bluesy magic with a song she wrote inspired by home thoughts from abroad while she was visiting a US beach, a number “Family at the beach” which undulated from rhythmic patter-song to dreamy, nostalgia-filled relivings of iconic childhood memories of being a child at a beach somewhere in New Zealand, capturing it all so unerringly for me, and somewhat redolently, for others as well. She morphed from this into a jazzy rhythm which brought the equally charismatic Coral Trimmer to the stage with her harmonica, aptly launching into Gershwin’s “I got rhythm” with terrific choreographic energy, then disarming us completely and utterly with “Londonderry Air”, a tune better known as “Danny Boy”, the duo’s playing milking the song’s ascending second part for all it was worth (juicy chordings from the pianist, and a glissando to boot!) before raptly delivering the piece’s concluding, lump-in-throat “water come in me eye” pay-off.

The arrival of eminent theatre administrator, producer and comedienne Sunny Amey then completed the trio of nonagenarians, Amey joining with Coral Trimmer to sing some parodies (the first of which (to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”) we all knew and joined in with the bawdy words!), then musing further on the process of ageing with gorgeous sendups of classics like “Shuffle off to Buffalo”, her gently self-deprecating forgetfulness-parables forging empathetic, belly-rumbling links with her listeners! And it was into this haze of opaque evocation that the ever-astounding diva Cynthia Fortescue and her accompanist Gertrude Rallentando (Helen Moulder and Rose Beauchamp respectively) burst to relive their triumph of “Going for Baroque” with the tried-and-truly-astounding “condensed and updated” version of Henry Purcell‘s celebrated opera “Dido and Aeneas”, here searingly and fearlessly revamped as “Diane and Andy”.

Cynthia’s unashamedly Boris Christoff-like assertion when introducing the work to us, ”I play all the characters”, seemed to me to more than adequately sum up the – well, some might think of them as “liberties” while others would unhesitatingly use the word “inspirations” – which abounded in the pair’s realisation of the age-old tale of love and betrayal – during which we as a proper “performing audience” had an infernally risible part to play as well, goaded into a frenzy by the leader of a coven of “wayward sisters”, a witch called Jacinda!  One excerpt only will I reveal from the adaptation to again convey something of the flavour of the whole – “Hear my plan/to rid Aotearoa/ of this dreadful man” –  (something involving a “Trojan virus” sent to the hapless Andy’s laptop)  – but that’s quite enough info to be going on with!….

We heard former dancer and performance-poet Margaret Austin’s wryly entertaining  “Should I lie about my age” dissertation, one which turned into a cautionary tale of association on her part with an impresario and a drink-besotted choreographer on tour throughout Europe, with its bitter-sweet conclusion; and, following further music-making from Linn Lorkin and Coral Trimmer, we were introduced to Jan Bolwell, performer, choreographer and playwright, and founder of the Crows Feet Dance Collective, whose stories touched on her father’s experiences in Italy during World War Two, when he was hidden by an Italian family from the Germans, of her own experiences in Italy when re-exploring her father’s “haunts” while a prisoner, including dealing with her sexual harassment by various Italian men, and of her defiance of the “women’s ageing” stigma in society, as expressed in a country and western song she had appropriated, whose yodelling choruses could be rewritten to fit the words “Older Ladies”. No prizes for guessing who were able to “try out” the song at a glorious full-throttle!

Not to be outdone, Helen Moulder’s Cynthia Fortescue made a plea to be allowed a final “scene” with “Dame Kate”, consisting of a single song, a delicious duet from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” opera depicting the meeting of two lovers the bird-man Papageno and his long looked-for mate Papagena, piquantly accompanied by Rose Beauchamp’s Gertrude! – had we not acquiesced we would have missed out on minutes and minutes of pure delight as the two “Pa-pa-ge-no/ge-na-‘d” themselves contentedly into the throes of connubial bliss. And then, seemingly as soon as it had all begun, it was over, with a rousing “all-for-one” rendition of a tune to which the words “The Older the Better” gave resonant ambiences for the rest of the evening. In all, it’s a heart-warming, unmissable affair, an inspirational initiative by Kate JasonSmith, a magical coming-together of past and present which will cause much amusement and delight!


Seven voice students from Victoria’s school of music present varied and well delivered recital

Classical Voice Students of the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University
Accompanied by David Barnard, head accompanist and vocal coach

Simon Hernyak: ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ (Messiah – Handel); ‘In the silence of the secret night’ (Rachmaninov)
Shaunagh Chambers: ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’ (Bach, BWV 68); ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’ (Ned Rorem)
Zoe Stocks: ‘Zeffiretti lusingieri’ (Idomeneo – Mozart); ‘Adieu notre petite table” (Manon – Massenet)
Emily Yeap: ‘Batti, batti’ (Don Giovanni – Mozart); ‘Silent Noon’ (Vaughan Williams)
Samuel McKeever: ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’ (Faust – Gounod); ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ (Orlando – Handel)
Jennifer Huckle: ‘Soupir’ (Ravel); ‘En vain, pour éviter’ (Carmen – Bizet)
Elian Pagalilawan: ‘Widmung’ (Schumann); ‘Chanson Triste’ (Duparc)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 16 September, 12:15 pm

Here was one of the frequent recitals by Victoria University’s school of music’s students – this time voice students: two second years, the rest third years.

Rather than plod through the two songs each by the seven singers, it might be interesting to regard it as a concert that drew music of various kinds, chronologically, from 300 years of European music. I’ll start with the earliest:

From Bach’s Cantata no 68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, Shaunagh Chambers sang ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’, a warm and joyous aria that she sang well, if in a rather uniform manner, rhythmically and dynamically. Then two Handel arias: Simon Hernyak with ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ from Messiah and Samuel McKeever with ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ from the opera Orlando. Simon’s voice in the Messiah aria was attractive though perhaps too quiet and unvarying to enliven the aria’s sense very well. ‘Sorge infausta…’ is hardly over-familiar: the magician Zoroastro intervenes in the story from Ariosto’s famous Renaissance epic, Orlando furioso. It was a well-placed and striking, resonant aria to bring the recital to its end.

Mozart represented the latter 18th century. From Idomeneo, Zoe Stocks sang the charming ‘Zeffiretti lusingieri’ in her attractive voice that captured the feeling of the breeze rustling the garden. Emily Yeap chose the very different placatory aria that Zerlina sings to Masetto in Don Giovanni, ‘Batti batti’, displaying a good upper register; though its complex emotional sense somewhat eluded her.

I’d have welcomed more German Lieder: Schumann’s hugely popular ‘Widmung’ to a poem by Rückert (‘Du meine Seele, du mein Herz’) in the large Op 25 collection, Myrthen, represented the period well. It’s one of the best loved of the abundant riches of Schumann’s songs and Elian Pagalilawan’s approach, in vocal quality and feeling was a lovely fit.

Gounod’s Faust comes next chronologically; it was Samuel McKeever’s first song and his distinctive bass proved a convincing vehicle for Mephistopheles’s ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’, with a cruel, mocking laugh. Fifteen years later came Bizet’s Carmen from which Jennifer Huckle sang convincingly, ‘En vain, pour éviter’, her awakening to her fate as revealed by the cards: each word carefully enunciated.

Staying in France, Manon by Massenet provides the touching soprano aria, ‘Adieu notre petite table”, that captures her self-aware fickleness; some lack of verbal clarity was not really a problem.

Duparc has a very special place in French song, or ‘Mélodie’, in spite of the very few songs that survived his self-criticism. ‘Chanson triste’. Elian Pagalilawan sang with a calm, nicely projected voice that captured its poetic character. Staying in France, mezzo Jennifer Huckle sang Ravel’s ‘Soupir’ (one of the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé, originally with instrumental accompaniment), handling both the lower range and some high passages, as well as the second more vivid part, comfortably, in a calm voice that suited the music very well.

Vaughan Williams and Rachmaninov were also, like Ravel, born in the 1870s. Vaughan Williams’s ‘Silent Noon’, a setting of a Rossetti poem, and Emily Yeap here found a setting that suited her voice a little better than ‘Batti batti’ had. She sang calmly, capturing lovers in the romantic countryside very effectively.

The Rachmaninov song was ‘In the silence of the secret night’; like others, she carefully named the poets of each piece, an admirable practice that I have always believed important to be aware of. It applies even more to opera librettists. Even if one has never heard of the poet, as I hadn’t of Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet; but he’s interesting to pursue in Wikipedia or your encyclopedia. Her dealing with this song was rather more nicely controlled and atmospheric than had been her Messiah aria earlier.

Finally, the mid-20th century was represented by American composer Ned Rorem who seems to be still alive at 96. I’ve come across him before, perhaps in student recitals, and he’d made an impression on me. So did this song, to a Robert Frost poem, the musical setting clear-sighted. The programme leaflet named the tutors of each singer (another admirable practice), and Jenny Wollerman’s name was by Shaunagh Chambers’ who sang Rorem’s attractive song; I could hear Wollerman’s voice and influence clearly enough in both the song and in her student’s performance.

I very much enjoyed this recital, as much for the performances, the admirable accompaniments by the school’s vocal coach, David Barnard, and the choice and range of songs as for each singer’s efficient movement on and off: no waiting, no delays; fourteen songs in just 45 minutes.


Simon O’Neill generates plenty of “Spirit” in NZSO Podium Series Concert

NZSO Podium Series
SPIRIT – with Simon O’Neill

Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Berlioz – Overture “Le Corsaire” Op.21

Mahler – Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen

R.Strauss – Lieder – Allerseelen Op.10, No. 8 (orch. Heger) / Ruhe, mein Seele, Op. 27 No. 1 (orch. R.Strauss) / Cäcillie, Op 27 No. 2 (orch. R.Strauss) / Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27 No. 3 (orch. Heger) / Morgen, Op 27 No. 4 (orch. R.Strauss) / Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1 (orch. Heger)

Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in B flat Major, Op. 100

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 6 August

Hurrah for the NZSO, one of the very few orchestras anywhere in the world able to give live concerts. The large audience showed its appreciation. For reasons not clear to this writer, the concert was labelled “Spirit” though there was nothing particularly spiritual about the programme.

There was no narrative theme to the programme, but this didn’t matter. Many in the audience came especially to hear the renowned New Zealand heldentenor, Simon O’Neill, star of the greatest opera houses and concert halls of the world. They were not disappointed. He presented an uncompromisingly challenging fare, Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, and a selection of six songs by Richard Strauss from his Opus 10 and Op. 27 series, composed ten years apart, between 1884 and 1894. These were orchestrated later by Richard Strauss himself and by the German conductor and composer, Robert Heger.

On the face of it, there was much in common to these selections of songs by Mahler and Strauss. They were all composed in broadly the same period, they could all be described as late romantic works, yet they reflect the different personalities of the composers, Mahler deeply introspective, Strauss detached, the thorough professional, focused on his craft. Mahler wrote these songs when he was only 24, getting over a disappointing love affair. The songs, words by the composer, trace the journey of a distraught young man from desperation to acceptance: “I weep, weep! For my love” and “I think of my sorrow” in the first song, but by the second song it is “Good day! Good day! Isn’t it a lovely world?” The words are set to a joyful theme that Mahler used later in his First Symphony. In the third song he has a vision of his lost love, but the final song is about acceptance: “Love and sorrow, and world and dream”.

Simon O’Neill sang these with feeling and empathy, reflected in his powerful yet controlled voice and in his clear diction. His singing touched all by its emotional intensity The orchestra supported him with beautiful responses and echoes to the vocal line, which involved notably fine solo instrumental playing.

The six Richard Strauss songs were originally written for voice and piano and were later arranged for voice and orchestra. The songs are set to poems written by now largely forgotten poets. Strauss wrote the four songs from Op. 27 as a wedding present for his wife, soprano, Pauline de Ahna. These were bracketed by two from the earlier Op. 10. Significantly Strauss added the orchestral accompaniment to the song, Ruhe, meine Seele (Rest thee, my Soul), many years after the song was composed, in 1948, just before his death at the age of 85. The words “Rest thee, rest thee troubled spirit and forget all, thy sufferings will soon be over” had a special meaning in the years after the war. The orchestral accompaniment to these songs added a striking colour, with a fine violin solo in the penultimate song, Morgen, beautifully played by Vesa-Matti Leppänen . This was a memorable performance that will stay in the memories of all who were there to hear it.

The major symphonic work on the programme was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. It was written in 1944, by which time the war was turning in the Allies’ favour. It is a work written for a very large orchestra. There were 94 players on stage. It is full of rich melodies and strong Prokofiev rhythms. It is a long 46 minute colourful work. Prokofiev claimed to have conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul. This might have satisfied Stalin and his cultural henchmen at the time, but there is a sense of cynicism behind the lovely melodies and exaggerated bombast. It is a challenging work for the orchestra and without any question, the orchestra coped well with the difficult passages, with some outstanding solos and great brass chorales. A wide range of instruments were at work, including something of a solo passage for the wood block. It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge that the work was thoroughly well prepared and performed with dedication. Yet there was something missing, the passion, the warmth of the melodies, the striking contrasts. It was a deliberately careful, but understated performance.

The concert opened with the vigorous start of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture,  followed by a rich extended melody, then more tempestuous music. The contrasting passages represented the adventurous life of a pirate at sea. The title was a clear reference to Lord Byron’s poem of that name. It is attractive programme music which gave an opportunity to every section of the orchestra to shine, with busy strings and great brass chords. The music embodies the emotional extremes of Romantic music, adventure, pirates, tender nature and love. It was cheerful music, and a contrast to the melancholic mood of the Mahler songs, but it foreshadowed the rousing energy of the Prokofiev Symphony of the second half of the concert. It was an appropriate introduction to a varied evening of music that followed.

This was a great concert with which to open a shortened concert season. It was recorded and is available on YouTube and will go on tour of to many of the main and provincial centres, so that people can access it anywhere in the country.










Attachments area

Preview YouTube video NZSO: Podium Series – Spirit with Simon O’Neill

Delightful vocal recital from Takiri Ensemble at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society
Takiri Ensemble

Soloists: Maike Christie-Beekman (mezzo), Robert Tucker (baritone), Emma Pearson (soprano), Declan Cudd (tenor), Kirsten Robertson (piano)

Beethoven: Six songs for soloists
Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Poulenc: Priez pour paix (ensemble)
Quilter: Go Lovely Rose (ensemble)
Rossini: I Gondolieri (ensemble)
Copland: Three songs (ensemble)
Lauridsen: Three songs

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 2 August 2:30 pm

The journey by train to Waikanae to one of the Waikanae Music Society’s concerts is one of the real pleasures for Wellingtonians; especially bearing in mind that for those of a certain age, train is free. We keep running into people who are unaware of both the delightful train ride (enriched by the sight of endless queues of cars travelling south on the return journey), and the wonderful concerts themselves.

This was a departure from the chamber music recital: four singers plus pianist.

The first four songs, of Beethoven, exposed the four individual voices: Emma Pearson’s operatic scale voice singing the ‘Maileid’ (May Song), unseasonally perhaps, with an attractive, tremulous quality; then Maike Christie-Beekman in ‘Mollys Abschied’ (Molly’s Goodbye); her voice invested with sadness that faded right out at the end. Both were from Beethoven’s eight settings in his early 20s of Goethe poems (Op 52).

Robert Tucker will be remembered from his role as the King in Eight Songs for a Mad King in the Festival in February; he sang the next song, ‘Die laute Klang’, an 1815 song without opus number (WoO). Beethoven was totally deaf by that time and Tucker remarked that Beethoven had taken the liberty to change some of poet Herder’s words (Herder was a little older than Goethe, described as a philosopher and critic rather than a poet). His warm baritone voice produced a striking rendering of this serious song.

Tenor Declan Cudd sang ‘Der Kuss’, (a mischievous poem by not well-known Christian Felix Weiße, two decades older than Goethe). The main element, in hindsight, was Cudd’s teasing words “Lange, lange, lange” to describe the lady’s response to the uninvited kiss.

The last of the Beethoven songs was the duet ‘Lebens-Genuss’ sung by Pearson and Cudd; it was a ‘paraphrase’ of a text by the most prolific of all 18th century Italian opera librettists, Metastasio. The two voices might not have very compatible, but perhaps that was appropriate in this instance.

And it was time to note the beautifully gauged accompaniments throughout by Kirsten Robertson.

Then there were five Lieder from Mahler’s cycle, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. They are taken from a famous eponymous collection of twelve, possibly not-entirely anonymous folk-songs, collected – part written by? – a couple of the many poets who flourished during the height of the German Romantic era around the turn of the century (1800-1810), Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano; they were contemporaries of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In general, they don’t touch me as much as do the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or the Kindertotenlieder, but the aim of this ensemble was clearly not to pander to tastes limited to just the best-loved songs.

Two voices, Tucker and Beekman, sang the first song, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, investing it with as much narrative and dramatic quality as possible. The four singers shared the rest of the songs.  Almost all the five songs lent themselves to narrative delivery and they were much enlivened in that way. Treatment varied, allowing the piano to tell part of Emma Pearson’s story in ‘Wo die schönene Trompeten blasen’.

The original twelve were published with orchestral accompaniment and then arranged for piano accompaniment. But Mahler removed the last song, ‘Urlicht’, from the collection and used it in the Andante of his second symphony. It’s not clear to me whether or not Mahler made a piano arrangement of it, but Robert Tucker had a hand in the arrangement for piano that we heard, with all four voices, creating a distinct liturgical feeling. The four voices proved to be rather well balanced, bringing the first half of the concert to a happy end.

Sins of old age, and other times…
The second half comprised an interesting variety of music. The earliest was one of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), ‘I gondolieri’. One might have found it hard to guess its composer, especially if Offenbach’s interpretation was in one’s mind. Rossini’s is far from any hint of satire or scornfulness. It was sung rather engagingly, with the slow triple rhythm offering sufficient colour.

The programme was slightly re-arranged. First was Morten Lauridsen’s ‘Dirait-on’ from his cycle Chansons de roses (of 1993): an utterly charming song. I didn’t realise till it began, that I knew it, as American, Lauridsen, has not been in the least absent from the programmes of our choirs. A little search showed that I probably first heard ‘Dirai-on’ (‘one would say’) about four years ago. Leaving the United States for Britain, it was followed by Roger Quilter’s ‘Go lovely rose’, again sung by the quartet, which continued the pattern of affecting, melodious songs of the past century. And then a French song inspired by the approaching Second World War: Poulenc’s ‘Priez pour paix’, ‘Pray for peace’. This might have seemed to minimise the coming horrors: another melodious song, just a slightly disturbing expression, the words of which actually came from late Medieval/early Renaissance (early 15th century) French poet Charles d’Orléans (of course, the war d’Orleans was troubled by was the Hundred Years War between France and England that ended about the time d’Orleans died, 1465).

Three simpler songs, folk songs, by Aaron Copland followed, though they seem not to be called that: ‘Simple gifts’, ‘At the river’ and ‘Ching-a-ring Chaw’. The fours voices in ensemble were again genial, again capturing the warm, sentimental (in the best sense) character of songs that have become a fundamental part of American music.

To finish, Robert Tucker and their admirable pianist Kirsten Robertson, returned to sing Lauridsen’s typically moving ‘Prayer’, and that was capped when Declan Cudd came forward to sing Lauridsen’s best loved ‘Sure on this shining night’; all four joined in the final stanza. That might have done, but it was followed by a return to one of Schubert’s loveliest and most appropriate songs, ‘An die Musik’.

Even with no other Schubert… or Schumann… Brahms or Strauss, this was a very happy recital that might well have signalled hope for our success in continuing to ward off further pandemic dangers.


Moving and delightful recital of German Lieder at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Will King (baritone) and Nicholas Kovacek (piano)

Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge (Four serious songs)
Schubert: ‘Frühlingsglaube’; two songs from Die schöne Müllerin: ‘Am Feierabend’ and ‘Der Neugierige’; ‘Nacht und Träume’; ‘An die Musik’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 June, 12:15 pm

Though we missed St Andrew’s lunchtime concert last week celebrating the survival of live music in public places, this was warmly encouraging with a back-to-normal audience, from two graduate students at Victoria University’s School of Music.

The last time I heard Will King was in Eternity Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro in 2017. Though I’d like to hear him again in opera, this recital showed him as a mature and accomplished Lieder singer, and in particular, one who could deal properly with Brahms’s sombre Four Serious Songs.

What is striking about the first of them, ‘Den es gehet dem Menschen’, is the contrast between the uniform seriousness of the voice, often in contrast with agitated, flashing piano accompaniment. It demonstrated the beautifully controlled lyrical voice over a spectacular piano part that evoked a sort of frenzy. That spirit of the second song is very different. ‘Ich wandte mich’ expresses acceptance of death through the singer’s calm delivery, with occasional appropriate gestures, to suggest that Brahms is explaining what he himself clearly finds philosophically compatible in his contemplation of death.

I find it interesting that several great composers who were confessed non-believers (Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms and Fauré) were comfortable taking thoughts from the Bible to deal with a ‘humanist’ point of view. Each composed what are among the greatest and best-known Requiems).

The third song uses words from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) one of the so-called Apocrypha or books that were removed from the Protestant Bible in recent times. The words contemplate death as felt by one in full possession of his life; and then by one who is old and weak, with nothing more to hope for: ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’.  It could well have been a self-portrait in Brahms’s last year, and the song and the way both singer and pianist delivered a calm and comforting performance, captured its essence.

And the last song is the famous passage from Corinthians I, 13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, sung with a clear, humane feeling that would be endorsed by believers and non-believers alike. The four songs are not among Brahms’s most popular perhaps and I may have heard only one previous live performance; but they are universally admired, and need to be more performed.

Unhappily, we can no longer expect to hear music of this kind on our debased Concert Programme.

Five Schubert songs completed the programme, which was a bit shorter than is usual (regrettably). All were among Schubert’s best known and most loved. Uhland’s poem ‘Frühlingsglaube’ (Faith in Spring), gained through the reticence of both performers.

Two songs from Schubert’s wonderful settings of Wilhelm Müller’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin followed: ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘Evening rest’ or ‘After work’) set to happy, hopeful music in triple metre; but when it ends with the miller getting no sign that he is even noticed by the mill-owner’s daughter, the rhythm falters. .

And ‘Der Neugierige’ (The Inquirer), in which the miller, next, asks the brook whether the miller’s daughter loves him, there is again no response. The transition from buoyant hope to despair was deeply felt.

‘Nacht und Träume’ is the setting of a poem by Matthäus Casimir von Collin, brother of the author of the play Egmont for which Beethoven wrote the famous overture. It is one of Schubert’s later songs: deeply moving, a good example of a beautiful setting of a poem of no great distinction but which inspires a great composer to capture its calm and underlying disquiet, never revealed or explained.

And finally one of the most poignant of Schubert’s Lieder: ‘An die Musik’, a setting of a simple, touching poem by Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober. Again, it’s a quiet, intimate, restrained song, addressed as it were to a lover – ‘Music’.

This was a fine recital the honour for which music be shared by singer and accompanist. And it renewed my long-standing feeling that audiences today have too little exposure to the real treasures of classical song – especially Schubert and Schumann. I have always counted myself lucky to have been introduced to this music by two German teachers in the lower and upper 6th form who, remarkably, were music lovers in an otherwise artistically sterile institution, and we listened to and sang (after a fashion) many of the best known Lieder as well as many folk songs. Unfortunately, my German vocabulary remains rather confined to the language of those Romanic poets who inspired their composer friends.

Oh for a series of recitals, including the great cycles by Schubert and Schumann, from resident singers including, naturally, talented students, that would expose the happy few to the real thing.


Martinborough Music Festival – an overview of a delightful feast of chamber music

Martinborough Music Festival
An overview

For Friday 27 September see Lindis Taylor’s review

Saturday 28 September 2019, 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano; Wilma Smith – violin; Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello
Brahms: Viola Sonata No 2 in Eb, Op 120
Brahms: Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor, Op 101
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C Minor, Op 15

Saturday 28 September 2019, 7:30 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Songs: Between Darkness and Light (see review from Charlotte Wilson)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956
(See review of this concert by Charlotte Wilson)

Sunday 29 September 2019 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Yuka Eguchi – violin, Amy Brookman – violin, Alan Molina – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Wilma Smith – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Brahms: Theme & Variations for Piano in D Minor, Op 18
Brahms: String Sextet No 1 in Bb Major, Op 18
Mendelssohn: Octet in Eb Major, Op 20

Martinborough Town Hall

Martinborough is a charming, tastefully preserved and restored little country town 65 km from Wellington. Running a Music Festival there, featuring some of  New Zealand’s finest musicians is an incredibly ambitious project. The festival, held this year over three days, 27-29 September, was their third. It featured Michael Houstoun, piano, Jenny Wollerman, soprano, Wilma Smith, violin and viola, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, Yuka Egochi, Amy Bookman and Alan Molina, violins, Christopher Moore, viola,  Mathias Balzat and Ken Ichinose, cellos. The 4 concerts offered a broad range of music, from piano solo and a selection of songs, to a large string ensemble of a sextet and an octet. It is impossible to single out a highlight, for some it was the moving Schubert Quintet, for others the heartfelt romantic Brahms Sextet No. 1 in Bb  Op. 18 stood out. This work is by a young Brahms deeply in love with Clara Schumann. Others appreciated the variety of songs by Britten, Debussy Fauré, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Barber, sung by Jenny Wollerman, noted for her expressive interpretation of new and less familiar works.

The wealth of music included familiar works, Scarlatti Sonatas, played by Michael Houstoun, Chopin’s Cello Sonata, played by Matthias Balzat, and to crown the opening night, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Wilma Smith.

The next concert featured two late Brahms works, the second of his viola sonatas, in Eb Major Op. 120, one of his last compositions, originally written for the clarinet, played by Christopher Moore, with a gorgeous rich sound. Then came the Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, one of a group of compositions Brahms completed after his last symphony, works that are more concentrated, less expansive than his earlier chamber music compositions. The final work on the programme was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, one of the great masterpieces of the French romantic chamber music repertoire, a work of overwhelming beauty.

The final concert was music by the youthful Brahms and the even younger Mendelssohn. Michael Houstoun played Brahms’ piano arrangement of the Theme and Variations of his String Sextet No 1, which Brahms had arranged for Clara Schumann. This was a foretaste of the Sextet No. 1 in Bb Op. 18, played with restrained passion and good taste by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Yuka Eguchi, violins, Christopher Moore and this time Wilma Smith on the viola, and Matthias Balzat and Ken Ichinose cello.

To end the festival on a happy cheerful rousing note, these musicians were joined by Amy Brookman and Alan Molina, in Mendelssohn’s Octet in Eb Major, Op. 20. Mendelssohn wrote this when he was only sixteen, yet it remained one of his most popular and enduring compositions. It evokes an enchanted ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits derived from the young Mendelssohn’s reading of Shakespeare and Goethe.

The Martinborough Music Festival was a feast of good music. Ed Allen and his organising committee are to be commended on their vision, their courage to take risks, and on  flawless management to ensure that everything went smoothly. They were rewarded by full houses in the beautifully restored Town Hall and a large appreciative audience.

Martinborough Music Festival; Saturday evening of songs and Schubert String Quintet

Martinborough Music Festival
Between Darkness and Light

Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Ken Ichinose – cello, Matthias Balzat – cello

BRITTEN: ‘Not even summer yet’
DEBUSSY: Two songs from Ariettes Oubliées
RACHMANINOV: Lilacs Op 21/5
FAURÉ: Mandoline Op 58/1
PROKOFIEV: Two songs from Op 27 on poems by Anna Akhmatova
PROKOFIEV: Prelude Op 12/7
BARBER: ‘O Boundless, Boundless Evening’ Op 45/3
FAURÉ: ‘Clair de Lune’ Op 46/2
DEBUSSY: ‘Recueillement’
FAURÉ: ‘En Sourdine’
RACHMANINOV: ‘In my Garden at Night’ op 38/1
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C major

Martinborough Town Hall

Saturday 28 September, 7:30 pm

(This review from Charlotte Wilson arose as a result of my being unable to attend the third and fourth concerts: Festival chairman Ed Allen told me that he’d mentioned the matter to Charlotte; she offered to help and I welcomed her readiness to fill the gap between my review of the Friday concert and Steven Sedley’s covering the two afternoon concerts: Middle C is delighted to publish her sparkling review. L.T.)  

This is my first encounter with the Martinborough Music Festival. I leapt in my car up from Wellington to catch the last available seat for the Saturday evening concert and I’m so glad I did. People were there from all over: Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland. Note: I am not a music critic. I just talk on the radio. But I do love music. They give me a pen to make notes and I sit down.

The first thing you notice is how lovely the hall and the acoustic is: after three years, their first year in this beautiful, brand new renovated town hall, which has been strengthened and polished and expanded (lovely new library) to a point. Three cheers for the council. The mayor was there and spoke at the after-party.

They set the stage side-ways for this occasion; makes sense I suppose: wide point of view, everyone in the audience is close. And what a lucky audience we were! Even disregarding the songs which were of themselves exquisite, and I’m sure it’s Michael Houstoun’s appearance here (his last concert in Martinborough, and since he announced his retirement one of his last concerts ever) that contributed to the full house. But more – this is the greatest Schubert C major quintet I have ever heard, and one that I am going to remember for the rest of my life.

Jenny Wollerman: French and Russian songs 
The first half of the programme consisted of Jenny Wollerman and Michael Houstoun performing excerpts, for spring, of their celebrated disc of songs Between Darkness and Light (Rattle) – mainly French and Russian art song, settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, which they augmented for this concert with some Britten and Barber, Rachmaninov, more Fauré and Debussy – a sensual, impressionistic little cycle traversing the course of an early summer day.

Britten’s ’Not even summer yet’ opened. You’re immediately aware of the lovely acoustic, and Jenny’s spectacular power and control. Other highlights:  Prokofiev’s sunlit settings of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27, those wonderful Russian dance accents that crop up, thrilling: the gorgeous harmonies of Debussy’s ‘Recueillement’ and famous ‘Ariettes Oubliées’ (Verlaine), the singer and pianist so totally inhabiting the words and the music, Jenny’s perfect French. How beautiful Verlaine is, you forget. Lovely to have the song texts printed out. And why do we not hear Fauré’s songs more often? ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘En Sourdine’, both so exquisitely muted in this lovely acoustic, ‘Mandoline’ which conjures up a painting by Watteau, classical figures dancing. It was all like being transported to a fin-de-siècle gallery in Paris, or to a picnic on a river-bank with poplars rustling in the spring. Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Lilacs’ was so shimmering, you think of those little paintings by Vuillard.

Jenny’s in fabulous voice. Dramatic and powerful when needed, expressive and pianissimo when needed, she’s such a wonderful lieder singer with superb control and this lovely depth, even in the high notes. And need I mention the accompaniment? Perfection. Michael’s a master accompanist and a master impressionist, exquisite at this repertoire. We got Prokofiev’s ‘Harp’ prelude in the middle, too, as a treat. I hadn’t heard them perform these live, and they were all that the recording is and so much more: shimmering and splendid, sensual, ravishing songs from a duo that understood and inhabited them completely.

String Quintet in C Major
And then the highlight of the evening. One of the musical events of my life! Schubert’s C major quintet has always been everybody’s favourite. That slow movement. And the whole thing of it being his last work; completed only two months before he died; he tried to get it published but his block-head publishers had already written him off as just as song composer and besides, wanted pretty salon piano pieces, not anything near so important or sublime, the most profound work of the nineteenth century.

Michael and Jenny have exited, are now sitting in the audience, and we have on stage four string (or former string) principals – Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Wilma Smith, Christopher Moore from the Melbourne SO (astonishing viola) and Ken Ichinose Associate principal NZSO. Plus Matthias Balzat, back from the middle of his master’s study in Germany, playing first cello. They’re all brilliant soloists in their own right. Never heard such perfect intonation. But also they’re all dead keen chamber musicians – there’s Matthias watching Vesa-Matti like a hawk – and that meant perfect attacks, perfect Schubertian unisons, gorgeous duets like the one between the violin and cello in the second movement, perfect arpeggios tossed up and down from violin to cello the way that Schubert loves doing, changes totally imperceptible to the ear. Dynamics, perfectly judged. Utterly sense-making tempos, dancing where it dances, with a lovely Viennese lilt. Quite fast in the slow movement. And above all – because of course there was all the beauty and pathos of Schubert: the divine melodies, the exquisite textures (that pizzicato!), the extraordinary wandering as he does (sleepwalking as Brendel puts it) up and down through the keys. There was the urgent seat-of-your-pants-ness of a live performance which nothing can match. But there was also something else – the grit that is Schubert, the muscularity, the little surprises. I loved hearing this. Through the whole performance you just had this sense of one overarching conception underpinning everything and I would not have been so very totally surprised to see him sitting there with us in the room.

Can’t wait for next year now. What a performance, what a programme! New Zealand has a new, top-notch chamber music festival! Massive kudos to Ed Allen, the chair, and the whole of the organising committee. Martinborough, celebrate.


Korngold: exploration of beguiling Lieder one didn’t know, from Georgia Jamieson Emms

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s
Georgia Jamieson Emms (soprano) and Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Lieder by Erich Korngold: settings of poems, mainly by Eichendorff, from Op 9 and Op 38

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 4 September, 12:15 pm

Middle C has been neglecting its responsibilities with respect to the wonderful lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Partly the result of our diminished ‘human resources’ and partly … well, other things.

There are notes for two or three of them that seem to have failed to find a first sentence, but given time, some the right words and thoughts might emerge on the RNZAF woodwind quintet, six hands at the keyboard, recorder and harpsichord…

The name Korngold doesn’t seem to be found in the average survey of German Lieder, not even among the lesser figures like Marschner, Hiller, Berg or Pfitzner. But since the word is merely the plural of the German word for ‘song’, and applies to German composers strictly speaking, almost all German composers from the late 18th century will have things called ‘Lieder’ among their compositions. But in the course of writing this and exploring books and the internet on the composer and his music, it’s clear that has been a somewhat serious omission. I’d known little more than Korngold’s most famous, precocious opera Die tote Stadt and some of the film music written in Hollywood after he left Germany when Hitler arrived.

Most of the songs Georgia chose were also early and four were to poems of Eichendorff which were most commonly chosen by the famous German Lieder composers: Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Wolf (Schubert died before much of Eichendorff’s poetry became known). I was interested to discover several recordings of both cycles; since I’d heard none of them before, I must report that further hearings by singers like Barbara Hendricks and Angelika Kirchschlager increased my respect for and enjoyment of them.

The six songs of Op 9 were composed between the age of 14 and 19, and it was not difficult to hear rather unsophisticated tunefulness. One tries to hear influences and I succeeded in hearing, in Schnneeglöckchen, the sounds of early 20th century American operetta: Romberg, Friml, Herbert…, perhaps not the richness of the best of those, but a genuine, Liederish character. The second song was Nachtwanderer, whose theme is very close in subject and in certain musical hints to Goethe’s Erlkönig, but certainly suggested nothing of the song Schubert wrote at about the same age. Neither was the next song, Ständchen, again set to an Eichendorff poem; Schubert’s Op 889 is of ‘Hark, hark, the lark’ from Cymbeline., and his Ständchen in the cycle Schwanengesang is by Rellstab. There are several poems with the name and various settings of several of them. Korngold’s had a sparkling character, and it was one of the few that showed evidence foe me of his gifts: a gift for melody.

Liebesbriefchen revealed something wistful and interesting musically, in spite of a rather modest little poem. Das Heldengrab am Pruth was a gentle, touching little song with interesting piano accompaniment that captured bird-song charmingly. (I notice that Renee Fleming recorded it recently on a DVD anthology). I think Georgia said that Sommer was written for Lotte Lehmann to sing with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which would have accounted for a piano accompaniment that was orchestrally a bit clangorous; translation ‘blackbird blaring’? That is not in the least a criticism of Bruce Greenfield’s carefully considered and sympathetic accompaniments throughout the programme.

Knowing that the last two songs, from the Fünf Lieder of 1948 were from his last decade invites one to find more musical maturity and emotional depth; and I did. Georgia began with the second song in the cycle, Der Kranke (The Invalid), also by Eichendorff, expressed in gentle, morbid tones with a repeated descending phrase in the piano. The recital ended with the first poem in the cycle: Glückwunsch, words to a beloved that seemed to hint as much at uncertainty as to unalloyed happiness. They offered further opportunities to admire Georgia Jamieson Emms’s colourful and expressive voice.

They ended with a song that Korngold wrote in his late Hollywood years: an afterthought for the film Escape Me Never which was a bit of a flop. But it was a nice way to end a very interesting and rather beguiling 40 minutes.

This exposure has led me to some exploring of Korngold. I’ve long had a recording of Die tote Stadt, which becomes darkly seductive for much more than the dreamlike, beautiful ‘Marietta’s Lied’ (Glück, das mir verblieb). Many years ago, when the Concert Programme (as it was then) used to broadcast hour-long sessions on operas on Sunday mornings, William Southgate spoke about Korngold’s second-best-known opera, Das Wunder der Heliane. Its touch of the supernatural has haunted me and one prone to expressionist sentimentality has longed to see/hear a production. Not in this country…