Brahms piano trio and Czech duos at St Andrew’s

Breaking free from the Chamber – van der Zee, Mitchell and Mapp

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

Janáček – Sonata for Violin and Piano
Martinů – Sonata No.2 for ‘Cello and Piano
Brahms – Piano Trio No.2 in C Minor

Anna van der Zee (violin) / Paul Mitchell (‘cello) / Richard Mapp (piano)

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 20th March 2011, 3pm

Many of my most memorable musical experiences come from unexpected encounters with either unfamiliar compositions or stunningly good performances. In Wellington, these days, one expects at most concerts certain levels of musical understanding and technical accomplishment, but that still leaves plenty of stratospheric spaces for performances which take the listener to those out-of-the-ordinary heights that can’t help but enlarge and enrich one’s view of existence in general. This was a concert with many such moments.

I don’t wish to give the idea that these musicians normally don’t impress with their playing, though I have to say that in ‘cellist Paul Mitchell’s case I thought his work on this occasion exceeded in overall terms of accomplishment anything I’d previously heard him do. I’d heard Anna van deer Zee’s work previously as a member of the Tasman String Quartet, and remember enjoying her musicality in that context, somewhat removed from the realm of a virtuoso violin sonata, as here. As for Richard Mapp, I’ve always had the highest regard for his piano-playing in different settings, be it collaborative or soloistic – which is not to say that I’m never surprised and delighted by what he’s able to achieve out of the blue, as it were.

But this, I thought, was a special concert, one in which the musicians infused their material with oceans of appropriate character – fiery energy and deep concentration (Janáček and Martinů) and robust strength and romantic warmth (Brahms). And what a stunning opening to the concert it was, with the Janáček Sonata’s fiery, volatile declamations hurled at us by both violinist and pianist, only for the music to revert to the most confessional and intimate utterances without warning – such tenderness sitting alongside blazing statements and searing lines! I thought the playing simply terrific, encompassing both strength and vulnerability, handling the composer’s characteristic sudden switches into contrasting moods with great aplomb. Van deer Zee and Mapp caught the second movement’s folksy lyricism, swapping melodic lines with wonderful dexterity and, in van deer Zee’s case, beautifully true intonation.

The scherzo-like third movement set an invigorating “stomping” character at the opening against a more heartfelt trio section (these players characterized everything so vividly), while the finale’s epic treatment of tragedy cast the instruments almost as protagonists in places – the violin occasionally savaging the piano’s more long-breathed music with brutal interjections, the music in between time creating a mood of desperate and uncertain yearning for peace and harmony, constantly under threat. The players achieved an intense, heartbreaking flow of feeling at one point, but one which the echoing of the movement’s opening quickly dissolved, as if waking us from a dream and returning us to a harsher reality.

Martinů ‘s second “Cello Sonata, written in the United States after the composer had fled the Nazi invasion of Europe, is a kind of “New World” chamber sonata, containing numerous echoes of his Czech heritage. The first movement has a slightly “haunted” quality, folkish lines punctuated by episodes of great agitation, with textures for both instruments richly wrought. Mitchell and Mapp played into each other’s hands throughout quite masterfully, the focus of the ‘cello line matching and mirroring the piano writing to perfection. Together these musicians made something special out of the funeral-like Largo, recreating a whole world of sorrow and disquiet, galvanized by some virtuoso playing from the pianist leading to a most heartfelt and desperate entry from the ‘cellist – fantastic playing, completely “inside’ the music. The finale’s opening, combatative exchanges between string pizzicati with “attitude” and jagged piano writing, never let up, fusing lyricism with rhythmic energies, the players readily capturing a sense of “flight”, of desperate movement towards a kind of freedom in sadness and anger.

After these heart-on-sleeve utterances, the Brahms Piano Trio seemed at first a model of classical decorum – as well, the composer’s writing (strings often in unison) tended in the opening movement to play down the inherent warmth of this instrumental combination, so that we got an athletic, sinewy sound, focused and lean-textured. Occasionally I found the piano a shade overpowering in this movement, and wondered whether the player or the acoustic was to blame. This wasn’t so pronounced in the subsequent movements, the slow movement’s songful variations bringing the players’ tones together in a beautifully balanced outpouring of melody. The Scherzo’s wonderfully delicate, slightly “spooky” opening tones were beautifully realized, the warmer, more relaxed second subject was given plenty of character by the players, rising to something approaching heroic utterance at its climax, and switching to a Mendelssohnian feeling at the return of the opening, much relished by the musicians.

Hugo Wolf once complained of Brahms, “he can’t exult” – a judgement that this music surely and triumphantly denies. The musicians captured the flow of things right from the start, enjoying the occasional chromaticisms and contrasting them with a more chunky and bucolic character in other places. Richard Mapp’s playing I found terrific, establishing the kind of momentum which swept everything before it, his fellow-players matching the excitement right to the music’s joyous conclusion. Altogether, the concert gave us music-making of a high order, reminding us all over again (if needed) of the depth of talent to be found among our local musicians – such wealth, and at the disposal of our pleasure.

Impressive recital by piano duettists at St Andrew’s

The Pangea Piano Project (Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez: piano duet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts
Dvořák: Slavonic Dance, Op 46 No 1; Tolga Zafer Özdemir: Mesopotamia Suite; Liszt: Après une lecture du Dante; Ligeti: Sonatina; Guastavino: Romance del Plata; Jack Body: Three Rhythmics

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 18 March, 7.30pm

What was revealed in the leaflet advertising this highly enjoyable series at St Andrew’s hardly covered the reality. The names of neither of the two pianists were familiar, nor were two of the composers, though the name Guastavino might have rung bells. The two pianists have played together for several years, and are currently staff pianists at the University of Auckland School of Music.

However, Liszt’s Dante Sonata should have been enough to draw a crowd – Ya-Ting Liou’s performance was highly impressive – and there was the pleasurable certainty of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, played in its original form.

But there was also real delight in the four other pieces, all of which demonstrated the pianists’ adventurous taste, but most importantly their ear for contemporary music with a human face.

Tolga Zafer Özdemir is a young Turkish composer who in his Mesopotamia Suite makes a successful and attractive fusion of Middle Eastern and western European musical traditions. In one of his several interesting spoken offerings, Blas Gonzalez suggested Anatolian musical references, though the title would seem at odds with that: I am in no position to compare the musical characteristics of the Turkish heartland (Özdemir was born in Ankara in 1975) with that of the Arabs in what is now Irak. This piece, for one pianist, played by Gonzalez himself, was a splendid demonstration of his musical sensibility, keeping easy control of the fast and irregular rhythms and the quick-silver dynamic changes. It’s a delightful and arresting piece: fast, with strong though irregular rhythms in the first movement; a pensive quality in the second, with sharp dynamic contrasts between calm arpeggios in the left hand and sprays of brilliant notes in the right, hints of Ravel and Bartók; and a strikingly attractive last movement with fast, repeated, staccato motifs.

Ligeti’s Sonatina, for piano duet, was the second piece in the programme involving both pianists (after the Dvořák Slavonic Dance) which confirmed the pair’s singular accomplishment and superb ensemble. It was written in his early years, still in communist Hungary (he escaped to Cologne in 1956) and in a style acceptable to the regime; regardless of the artistic restrictions, Ligeti produced a piece that could hardly be mistaken for music of an earlier era. Yet for today’s ears it comes as a refreshing relief from much of the avant-garde music that Ligeti was eager to immerse himself in. There were tunes; the three movements were quite short, employing a palette recalling the French neo-classicists.

Gonsález remarked that Carlos Guastavino (1912 – 2000) was probably the third best-known Argentinian composer after Ginastera and Piazzola. Though his music is tonal, relatively ‘conservative’, its flavour is nevertheless distinctly mid 20th century. Underneath the charm and ease of Romance del Plata lies an individuality and integrity, the last movement in distinctly Latin American rhythms. In three movements, it proved a highly effective piece for four hands.

Jack Body’s Three Rhythmics has become something of a calling-card for the duo and while they played from the score, it was the product of obvious painstaking and conscientious work, in which I’m sure the composer would have delighted, such was the brilliance and command of their playing.

I first heard this piece – I think it was the premiere – at the October 1987 Sonic Circus, the last of the Jack Body-inspired 12-hour marathons, midday to midnight, of around 60 concerts and recitals of New Zealand music in every corner of the Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre. At the very start of my reviewing career with The Evening Post, I shared its coverage with my predecessor Owen Jensen; for me it was a fairly overwhelming introduction to much New Zealand music with which I was at that stage unfamiliar.

Three Rhythmics was played by the late Diane Cooper and Dan Poynton. I remembered it with some wonderment because it made such an impact then, and this performance by an Argentinian and a Taiwanese pianist astonished me again. It was a riot of complex rhythms delivered through twenty fingers working at lightning speed; it is an exciting minor masterpiece of which, above all, they made vivid musical sense.

The two main-stream works in the programme were Dvořák’s first Slavonic Dance, which emerged in illuminating and rhythmic clarity, sufficient to encourage one to seek out recordings of all 16 dances in original piano duet format.

And Liszt’s Dante Sonata (Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi una sonata; note the correct translation of lecture: ‘Reading’), as I said at the beginning, was a treat; sadly, not nearly as much played as the B minor sonata. From the very opening, Ya-Ting Liou’s playing was powerful and dramatic yet highly poetic; not too heavily pedaled but with all the density and force called for through the opening phase of this evocation of the Inferno from La commedia divina. Though described as ‘strange, confused and passionate’ (Searle) it can be a spell-binding piece; Liou handled the romantic, Chopinesque middle part with limpid clarity, showing a keen dramatic sense as the excitement grew through astutely handled crescendi and accelerations.

The Liszt was very much of a part with the entire recital, which could be regarded as an adventurous and highly successful exploration of some of the extremes of the Romantic piano world and some aspects of its survival in the present age.

Snell, Castle and Bryony Williams in opera recital at St Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Season of Concerts and the New Zealand Opera Society

Sarah Castle (mezzo), Martin Snell (bass), Bryony Williams (soprano), Bruce Greenfield (accompanist)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace,

Thursday, 17 March, 7.30pm

A well-filled church greeted the performers; it was necessary for the latter to introduce the items, since programmes had run out. This introduced a level of informality as well as information.

Martin Snell opened the evening’s opera excerpts; his resonant speaking voice made a memorable introduction to the first aria, ‘Sorge infausta una procella’, sung by Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando of 1733. Hearing the singer in this resonant church the night after having heard him in Xerxes made me realise how much we miss in a large theatre, even in a good seat and in the relatively good acoustics of the St. James Theatre (Rodney Macann says that the best sound is in the upper gallery there).

Enunciation of consonants really tells in this acoustic, as did the marvellous runs and plangent, characterful low notes the singer executed in this robust aria, and elsewhere. Snell did not use a score for this or any of the arias; only in the final item, the trio from Così fan Tutte, did he require the printed music. Neither of the women used a score at all.

It was grand to have Bruce Greenfield accompanying – the man who can sound like an orchestra. It was a hugely taxing programme for him, which he carried off with his usual assurance and brilliance; his technique, flair, and expressive powers are just astonishing.

The Opera Society and the St Andrew’s Season of Concerts organisers are to be thanked for getting such an outstanding concert together, to be performed while Martin Snell was in his homeland to sing in Xerxes. They are to be thanked, too, for providing printed translations of the arias, with titles and brief summaries of the situations in the operas giving rise to the arias.

Sarah Castle followed with one of Sesto’s arias from Giulio Cesare, an earlier Handel opera than the previous one. This was a trouser role – Sarah Castle explained the variety of roles which a mezzo could be called upon to fill. This aria was very fast – perhaps a little too fast. Castle proved to have a fine, rich, well-modulated mezzo voice, considerably developed from when I last heard her sing.

Snell returned to sing a lovely, lilting rendition of ‘Vi ravviso’ from La sonnambula by Bellini, in which he aroused, through the voice as well as the words, the feelings of longing that Count Rodolfo was experiencing.

‘Acerba volutta’ from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvrer was next, from Sarah Castle, who managed to portray a woman this time. This was powerful singing – and an accompaniment so full of notes that it was a spectacle to watch Greenfield play!

Snell’s next role was as a doctor, in ‘O tu Palermo, terra adorata’ from I vespri siciliani, by Verdi. This long aria demonstrated the singer’s excellent breath control. Unfortunately, a beeping watch (the audience had been asked to turn off such devices) distracted the singer, and he repeated the aria, looking over Greenfield’s shoulder towards the end. However, he was now too far from the microphones for the recording for Radio New Zealand Concert to be successful for this particular number.

We now moved from Italian to French, when Bryony Williams sang ‘Le coeur d’Hélène’ from the earlier French version of the same opera by Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes. Williams’s soprano sometimes has a rather metallic sound, especially in the upper register. She needs to open the throat and air passage more; the sound sometimes seemed stuck behind her teeth. Note: we never saw Martin Snell’s teeth! However, in all her items, Williams’s phrasing and characterisation were very good.

Verdi’s aria ‘Infelice, e tu credevi’ from Ernani gave Snell another opportunity to characterise the role of someone who was not just a black and white personality (should that be black or white?).

Sarah Castle returned to sing a lengthy Wagner aria (if those two words can be put together): Fricka challenging Wotan in no uncertain terms in ‘So ist denn aus’ from Die Walküre. The power and strength of Castle’s singing fully met the considerable demands of words and music.

Wagner was the composer of Martin Snell’s next effort, too: ‘Gar viel und schön’ from Tannhäuser. Snell explained that the story of this music drama was based on historical fact. It was sung in a powerful and noble manner, as befitted an aria in a singing contest. The richness of Snell’s voice is more apparent (naturally, perhaps) in the slower arias. There was another aberration here, between pianist and singer, but all was resolved. A tiny flaw was a slightly sharp final note to this stirring aria. His German was impeccable.

The last aria before the Interval was ‘Sein wir wieder gut’ from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It was sung by Sarah Castle, whose voice was very flexible and dramatic in this demanding aria.

The second half of the concert featured several ensembles, the first of which was the opening duet of Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss, for Octavian (sung by Sarah Castle, as a boy) and the Marschallin (Bryony Williams, as a much older woman). A little acting, using a stately chair as a prop (and subsequently used by Martin Snell several times), added to the drama and helped this conversational duet along.

Another duet from the same opera followed, with Octavian again being sung by Sarah Castle, and Baron Ochs by Martin Snell. In this, Octavian is in disguise as a maid; thus Castle, a woman, is playing a man playing a woman. The interchange was very funny, with lots of facial expression from Snell. The duet ends with a waltz, tastefully danced by the pair.

The aria ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani (which I had heard on radio that very morning) was sung by Bryony Williams. Again the quality of her sound was variable.

For me, the high point of the performance was Martin Snell’s rendition of King Phillip’s aria in Verdi’s Don Carlos: ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ The tragic utterance of the King when he says that his wife does not love him, was the richest plum in a programme full of sweetmeats. Greenfield’s accompaniment was absolutely remarkable, almost orchestral, while Snell, seated in the kingly chair, gave us cavernous low notes in a superb portrayal of the tragic king. Every note was beautifully moulded and placed, while the words were enunciated flawlessly.

This was a hard act to follow; Kurt Weill’s Nanna’s Lied was characterfully presented by Sarah Castle, with an appropriate level of irony for Brecht’s words.

She continued with the English song ‘Here I’ll stay’ from Love Life by Weill, and then his French song ‘Je ne t’aime pas’. This one was extremely well portrayed through facial expression and the voice.

Bryony Williams sang ‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ from Susanna by Carlisle Floyd. This was effective and touching, but the voice changed its quality too much through its range.

Martin Snell followed with the aria that won him the Mobil Song Quest, back in 1993, and which he sang in the Opera New Zealand production of the opera in 2009: Prince Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. Sung in Russian, this was a delight.

The concert ended with the well-known trio from Così fan Tutte, ‘Soave sia il vento’. While it is always worth hearing this beautiful music, the trio was not very well matched or blended. It may have been that there was not much time for rehearsal, but this finale was disappointing.

The concert was a rare treat, celebrating the singers’ art, the accompanist’s versatility and expertise, and the opera composers’ brilliance and inventiveness. The singers were thanked with applause and flowers; the professional singers especially were generous for giving their time and talents free for this evening.

Elios Ensemble captivates at St Andrew’s season

Elios Ensemble (Karen Batten – flute and alto flute, Martin Jaenecke – violin and soprano saxophone, Victoria Jaenecke – viola)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts

Music by Bartók, Igudesman, Debussy, Reger, Mansurian, Ginastera and Beethoven

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday 15 March, 7.30pm

This was the kind of programme that probably sorts out its own audience, or rather, it would sort them out if there were enough to provide a good statistical sampling.

On the one side are those who are drawn to a concert by names that are familiar, both composers and pieces; and on the other, Stendhal’s ‘Happy Few’, those who are enticed by a mix of the familiar and names that are evocative, half-heard, that arouse curiosity and suggest ambiguity and other-worldliness, as well as having an emotional force. You gauge the latter as much by what you have come to know of the performers as by the composers’ names and titles of the music.

How could you resist a programme that included a delightful early piece of Beethoven, another chance to explore Max Reger whose true nature, I feel, keeps eluding me; some of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins; and two names that merely rang bells?

Let’s go chronologically. Beethoven’s little six-movement Serenade Op 25 was written for these very instruments, and his writing for the flute, for starters, showed how acute Beethoven’s sense of instrumental timbre and capacities was. The first movement, starting with a veritable flute fanfare, belonged very much to Karen Batten.  Elsewhere, violin and viola were rewarded and these two superb, somewhat unacknowledged players had plenty of exposure, in particular in the Andante con variazioni.

Reger’s Serenade was very clearly based on Beethoven’s and afforded him the chance to show a levity and gaiety that are not qualities usually encountered. Written about a year before his death in his early 40s, perhaps he was attempting to redress the balance. It showed Reger as a perfectly gifted melodist (I read a recent review that remarked that he couldn’t write a tune to save himself – not true!). Generally, he had concerns other than merely writing tunes, which might have been a bit misguided.

This proved an engaging suite – like Beethoven’s, in six movements – that was sometimes thoughtful, often gay (original sense), entertaining in its treatment of the three instruments and achieving nicely, just what one felt Reger wanted.

Debussy’s contribution was the predictable Syrinx for solo flute where Karen Batten demonstrated her virtuosity as well as her feeling for the piece’s place as sinuous, sensuous impressionism, and a brilliant little show-stopper.

Bartók comes next, though his pieces were first in the programme. I’m not acquainted with the entire collection of 44 Duos, but after this brilliantly played foray in which the two violins were replaced by, variously, viola, alto and normal flute and soprano saxophone, I will be exploring them. The pieces played were Ruthenian Song (Ruthenia was the little territory at the eastern end of the inter-war Czechoslovakia, north of Hungary and Romania and now in Ukraine), Teasing Song, Slovak Song, Pillow Dance, Fairy Tale, Mosquito Dance (very nocturnally disruptive), Sorrow and Dancing Song.

Ginastera’s Duo was originally for flute – alto flute – and oboe in three movements; like much of his music, it’s a bit hard to place both geographically and chronologically. At times, it seemed like a serious Françaix or Ibert, even, at times, not very remote from Britten’s sound world. There was little evidence of the popular Latin American musical world, and one accepts the statement that it employs Argentinian folk music. Persuasively performed, the Duo nevertheless made less impact on me than most of the other pieces in the programme.

Tigran Mansurian was born in 1939 in Beirut of Armenian parents. His piece, Lachrymae, is for soprano saxophone and alto flute, offering a lovely exhibition of these two very distinctive instruments. In general terms it evoked the sounds of the region – Caucasus, central Asia, the Levant, which of course is as various in its music as in its history and its religions; the use of quarter tones was just one of the identifiable features. It was also curious to hear the soprano saxophone exploiting its lowest register, sounding like an alto sax. As it did with one or two of the Bartok pieces, the saxophone seemed radically to alter the character of the music, inevitably in a trans-Atlantic direction.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lachrymae, making a mental note to explore more of Mansurian’s music.

Finally came a name altogether unfamiliar to me: Aleksey Igudesman (born Leningrad 1973). A more knowledgeable friend described his stage (or cabaret?) performances, with Hyung-ki Joo, that are very clever, very musical and very funny. (See There were three pieces, all with their feet in Ireland, but their heads somewhere else, mainly in the former Yiddish world of Eastern Europe where Klezmer was endemic. They were highly entertaining; the first in the infectious rhythms made familiar by the phenomenon of the River Dance. I have never heard such a piquant rendering of Danny Boy which I recoil from in its usual boring, unadorned harmonic dress. Igudesman had devised such an engaging and amusing harmonic setting – comparable to, but even more diverting than, Britten’s folk song arrangements – that it became a new song. The Klezmer element was strongest in the third piece, Giora Feidman lost in Dublin. Loved all of it.

Two supreme chamber works at St Andrew’s season of concerts

Musika Ensemble – Christina Vaszilcsin and Lyndon Taylor (violins), Peter Garrity (viola), David Chickering (cello), Catherine McKay (piano)

Borodin: String quartet No 2 in D; Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A, Op 81

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 11 March, 7.30pm

The second concert in this admirable series arrived at the very heartland of chamber music. The two pieces played are, I am sure, among the top ten of any real music lover’s favourites, both coming from the wonderful store of Slav romantic masterpieces. But you wouldn’t guess that from the sad array of worthy but utterly predictable stuff that gets into Radio New Zealand Concert’s New Year count-down every year.

Just to animadvert there for a moment. No piece of chamber music made it this year; though there were a couple of piano pieces (including, amazingly enough, the Waldstein and not the Moonlight sonata). However, I recall that both Schubert’s marvelous String Quintet and his Death and the Maiden Quartet have been there in past years.

You’d have thought that the endlessly played trailer that touted for votes for weeks might have prompted a few punters to include Berlioz’s Nuits d’été. But I suspect that, failing to recognize it, none had sufficient curiosity to identify it. I don’t recall Berlioz ever featuring on the list: to me, blindingly incredible.

It’s one of music’s great tragedies that Borodin was such a conscientious scientific researcher that he had so little time to compose; many have compared his genius with Schubert’s for its natural sense of form, its spontaneity and melodic abundance.

His second string quartet is dangerously overloaded with tunes, rich and long, that hurl themselves at you right at the start. Hurling was the operative verb this evening as the four players, in a readily amplifying acoustic on hard timber floor, made an overwhelming noise; I mean in the way of Beecham’s joke against the British: they didn’t like music much but loved the noise it made.

Each player seemed equipped with the most opulent and beautiful instrument and each played as if they’d been together for years and were in total accord.

Curiously, none of the string players are New Zealanders by birth; and one (Lyndon Taylor), sadly, is about to return to the States.

Borodin’s first movement was driven by playing of wonderful sonority and romantic sensibility. The second, a Scherzo, without a trio but with a changed tempo middle section, was no less luxuriant in tone though it might have lost a little in polish. (A few years ago a couple of the tunes in this quartet would have been familiar because of their use in the Borodin-inspired musical, Kismet). The disappearance of that pastiche has meant that Borodin’s music no longer suggests something that at times seems overly sentimental. The fact that the Nocturne has become more familiar in an orchestral transcription, however, doesn’t help: the real thing cleanses the palette, especially in a performance such as this, shamelessly romantic.

Borodin’s attention to the string quartet form met with the disapproval of some of his fellow ‘Mighty Handful’ (‘Могучая кучка’ – Moguchaya kuchka, earlier known as ‘The Five’) colleagues. Though there are melodic suggestions of Russian folk music, they are by no means as foreign to western European ears as is much of the music of the Balkans that Bartók and others later exhumed. It has always seemed a strange obsession that some Russians are determined to claim their music to be quite ‘uneuropean’, exotic, when Russia’s cultural as well as political history is so profoundly tied up with Europe.

The audience could count itself doubly blessed, with Dvořák’s beautiful piano quintet in A as the second piece. Along with Borodin and Schubert, Dvořák too was one of the greatest naturals of the 19th century, or any century, and this quintet is as full of melody as anything in the repertory. Dvořák’s gift not only unleashes endless melody but enables him to explore and develop them in full symphonic scope.

The addition of a piano to the ensemble seemed to bring about a degree of tenderness and refinement in the playing. Here, there was no question of any unwelcome dominance by the piano, and things were near perfect. For much of the time the strings create such beautiful sounds, having the monopoly of thematic presentation, that the piano is there simply (far from simply) to create illuminating texture, a feminine, supportive role, offering sparkling contrasting splashes. But every so often the piano grabbed the spotlight. When she had it, Catherine McKay used it with discreet delicacy, lightly fluttering, sounds of ravishing musicality, weight without noise, flawlessly judged in its relationship with the strings.

To simulate an orchestral sound is not the aim of chamber music, but the best chamber music, played by the most percipient musicians in a generous acoustic does attain that level of richness and opulence. This was such an occasion.

For the Dvořák, first and second violins changed places. While in the Borodin, Taylor’s lead fiddle was strong and confident; in the Czech music, Cristina Vaszilcsin led with a greater delicacy and diffidence in places where it counted, and that included the most boisterous parts of both the Dumka and the Furiant movements. Her own background in the Transylvanian region of Romania, and with what I assume to be (from her name) her own Magyar descent, she sounded at ease in the music from a few hundred kilometers to the north, with no need for invented histrionics.

I must say I was somewhat distressed that a larger crowd was not here for this programme of two of the most beautiful pieces of music – ideal as an introduction to anyone who thinks classical music is not for them. This is the kind of programme and the kind of musicians that an enlightened education ministry (don’t laugh – I’m serious) should be funding to tour the secondary schools of the country on a regular basis in an attempt to alleviate the cultural deprivation that curriculum changes over the years have stricken us with.

Joanna Heslop sings Russian songs for St Andrew’s season

‘Russian Romances: songs by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Balakirev, Cui, Shostakovich

Joanna Heslop, soprano, and Richard Mapp, piano

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

10 March 2011, 7.30pm

Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg and their supporters are to be congratulated on the variety and excellence of the concerts they are presenting in this year’s ‘Season of Concerts’ running for ten days from the date of this first presentation. It is a pity that there was not greater patronage: approximately 30 people attended this recital, into which so much work had been put. Among these it was pleasing to see a number of students of singing.

A programme of entirely Russian songs is unusual – in fact probably unique in this country. There can’t be any other New Zealand singer with the knowledge of this repertoire and language that Joanna Heslop has, after her years of residence, study and performance in Russia.

She was complemented in the most supportive and professional way possible by Richard Mapp. This was difficult music, played and sung skilfully and sympathetically. Sometimes, since the refurbishment of St. Andrew’s church, there has been a problem with the piano sounding too percussive over the new polished floor. Only in one or two first song did I find traces of this difficulty; the piano lid on the short stick and the immaculate pianism of Mapp provided thoroughly musical performances, well balanced with the voice.

There were aspects which detracted from complete enjoyment: most importantly, the lack of translations of the songs. Songs are half poetry, half music. If the audience has only the knowledge from the translated titles of what is being sung, then they cannot fully understand or enjoy what is being sung, despite beauty of tone, a certain amount of gesture and facial expression, and excellent accompaniment. Only for the Shostakovich songs at the end of the programme were we provided with printed words. It is also reasonable to expect that the poets will be credited in the programme – only Pushkin was.

The other factor was linked; a total of 25 songs in a language most of us do not understand, by a group of composers of the same nationality tends to a sameness that is a little hard to take. The famous melancholic Russian soul was very much in evidence until we got to the five Satires of Shostakovich. The first three brackets of songs had the headings ‘Inspired by Nature’, ‘Night and Dreams’, ‘Love’, and ‘Settings of Pushkin’.

The ecstatic first song (by Rimsky-Korsakov), about a lark, featured rapid staccato and triplets on the piano, while the second (Tchaikovsky), ‘The Sultana speaks to the canary’, was quieter, with a sultry Slavonic sultana delivering in a purer tone.

The next two items were from Rachmaninov; ‘Lilacs’ was quite delightful, with quite a strong character. It was soft and calm with a bird-song-like accompaniment, while the ‘Daisies’ was charming, with lovely trills accompanying the singing.

The same composer contributed the first three of five songs in the ‘Night and Dreams’ bracket. The opening song about a willow certainly had a darker sound than the songs in the previous bracket, but the willow seemed very noisy in its weeping, and the ending scream was too much for this lively acoustic.

‘I dreamed I had a native land’ was expansive yet pensive; ‘Twilight’ was rendered with lovely variety of tone and open-throated singing that was polished and refined with an easy flow.

The singing of Rimsky’s ‘A Summer Night Dream’ displayed Heslop’s ability to convey the many moods of a narrative in which a lot seemed to be going on, and achieved some fine high notes in this very melodic song. This appeared to be a difficult song for both voice and accompanist; again the final loud notes were too shrill.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Why do I love you, bright night?’ had a passionate accompaniment, and some beautiful tone from the singer. I found the amount of gesture employed rather too much at times, but it was a means for the singer to convey meaning when the audience had no words to follow.

After a short interval there were six songs grouped under the heading ‘Love’, comprising four by Tchaikovsky and one each of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov. Here, there was greater warmth of tone and emotion, and fewer shrill top notes. Heslop’s lower register projected richly. The opening ‘Serenade’ sat well in her voice, despite the wide range of the song. A lilting character for both voice and piano was very pleasing. Intimacy was communicated through facial expression – which did not switch off the moment the song ended.

‘Amidst the noise of the ball, I saw you’ sounded familiar – perhaps its theme meant it was similar to an aria in Eugene Onegin. A song about the nightingale was most engaging and effective – dramatic, too, as was Rachmaninov’s song ‘Yesterday we met’, in a quiet way.

Rimsky’s song ‘Not a breeze’ had nevertheless a breeze-laden accompaniment. Presumably the words went on to enlarge about a breeze. It was quite lovely. Tchaikovsky’s ‘It was early spring’ had a gentle, mature sound.

The group of Pushkin songs comprised two by Cui, one by Balakirev and two by Rimsky-Korsakov. The first two were short and effective. The Balakirev song was very different from the others, but I found it too clattery. Rimsky’s first song, ‘On the hills of Georgia’, was rich and impassioned – but about what? The second was rather one too many – it became soporific having yet another baring of the mournful state of the Russian soul.

After a brief interval it was a case of ‘Now for something completely different’ (except for the language), and the singer changed from a red diaphanous stole over her black dress to a red velvet jacket. Shostakovich’s ‘Satires’ were a dynamic tour de force, and with words in the programme, coupled with the singer’s histrionic skill, the audience could empathise with the humour and irony.

The first, ‘To the critic’ and the second ‘Spring awakens’ were recitative-like. The portrayal of cats and other characters in the latter made for a mixture of drama and kitsch (no pun intended). The fast quavers and powerful triple time of the third number, ‘Descendants’, helped to tell the story of this rather macabre patter song.

‘Misunderstanding’ was acted out by the singer, in a slinky and sexy way, reminiscent of a cabaret song. The last song was entitled ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, though Beethoven would have found it surprising.

These quirky satires showed the singer off to great effect, especially her ability with characterisation. The delightful accompaniments had unexpected harmonies, twists and turns.

It was impressive that Heslop sang all these songs from memory, and that her intonation was excellent throughout, as, I am sure, was her Russian language, since she studied in Russia – but I am no judge. It was well enunciated. The voice was well produced, and in the main used admirably. These were brilliant renditions of difficult repertoire. There was a true partnership between accompanist and singer. The accompaniments sounded difficult, but were superbly played, and in the main at the right sound level.

It was good to have the opportunity to hear these songs, which one would seldom come across. Indeed, to have a song recital at all is a rare opportunity these days, so this is another point of congratulation for the organisers of these concerts.

Full-frontal Mahler at St.Andrew’s

MAHLER – Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano) / Roger Wilson (baritone)

Terence Dennis (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

Friday 19th March

No composer is more identified with song as integral to his output than Gustav Mahler. The creator of a number of vast symphonic edifices, he worked into most of these compositions either direct quotations from his own songs or melodies derived from them. His Eighth Symphony is, in essence a choral symphony, and his orchestral song-cycle Das Lied Von Der Erde he regarded as a symphony in all but name.

Mahler grew up in the garrison town of Jihlava, in Moravia, a region steeped in folksong, and a place which would have frequently rung with the sounds of military marches, the boy’s enthusiasm for these tunes probably accounting for the prominence of such melodies and forms in his instrumental works up to the Eighth Symphony. His forty or so songs include no less than twenty-one settings of verses from a German folk-collection of verses entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology which first appeared in 1805, with two further volumes following. These poems, collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Bretano, include a colourful variety of themes, topics and characters, both religious and secular, all displaying an engagingly simple but deeply direct set of fireside-wisdoms.

Mahler first set some of these verses in 1883 for a collection entitled Lieder und Gesange; but better-known are the twelve settings which make up the composer’s “Wunderhornlieder”, and which we know indeed as Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The use of orchestral accompaniment brought out Mahler’s skill at fashioning chamber-like instrumental sonorities, often using single lines or small groups for colouristic effect, though the expediences of publication and performance saw Mahler write piano versions of the accompaniment as well.

To have the whole set performed live would be, I think, a rare treat anywhere; and singers Linden Loader and Roger Wilson along with pianist Terence Dennis threw themselves into the humour, tragedy, irony, drollery, foolishness and romance of the different settings with plenty of feeling and gusto. The theatricality of some of the duets brought out a ready response from Roger Wilson, putting his extensive operatic experience and vocal acting skills to good use with some vivid characterisations. If somewhat less outwardly demonstrative and spectacular in her character portrayals, Linden Loader’s beautiful voice made the perfect foil for her partner in their duets, such as in the opening Der Schildwache Nachtlied, a dialogue between a soldier and a beautiful ghostly temptress. And she nicely caught the cocquettishness of the girl in Trost im Unglück, a song abut a hussar and his recalcitrant sweetheart, one in which the singers played the contrasts off each other deliciously. For me, the “plum” of the duets is Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a song whose music is filled with eerily-charged beauty and deep regret, depicting an encounter between a girl and her dead lover – both singers here characterising their parts with the utmost feeling, and Terence Dennis’s piano-playing getting everything right, from the ghostly trumpet calls near the beginning to the flashes of anguish transfixing the girl’s vocal line, and the beautiful transitions between the warmly romantic music in 3/4 time and the spectral reveille-calls of wind and brass. Elsewhere, perhaps Roger Wilson’s extremely boorish lad in Verlor’ne Müh might have been thought by some too dunderheaded to be a credible object of a young girl’s attention; but I enjoyed it immensely.

The individual songs were no less finely done by each singer. Again, Roger Wilson pointed the words of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt with obvious enjoyment, relishing the irony of the fishes’ pragmatic response to St Anthony’s sermonisings, and later, turning his gift for comic irony towards creatures of a different kind in Lob des hohen Verstandes, bringing off the brayings of a donkey most beautifully. He was suppported to the utmost by Terence Dennis, whose playing nicely underpinned the garrulousness of the saint’s preachings (a fiendishly difficult “perpetuum mobile” piano-part), as well as pointing all the fun and pomposity of the animals’ pronouncements in the latter song. And Linden Loader caught our sympathies all too heart-rendingly on behalf of both mother and child, in the tragic Das Irdische Leben, but then in due course restored equanimities with a charming, nicely-related Rheinlegendchen, the music lovely, lilting and lyrical (the performance surviving the all-too-audible and out-of-rhythm tappings of a nearby workman!).

Performing Revelge, the longest song of the set last of all in the concert naturally threw weight onto the darker, more serious side of the collection – the piece describes a post-battle parade of ghost-soldiers, with music that’s mostly funeral-march in character, but filled with sardonic, mock-heroic gestures as well as grim finalities. I thought Roger Wilson and Terence Dennis gave the piece such vivid, in-your-face treatment that anything that followed afterwards would have seemed impossibly pale and wan. The singer’s repeated cries of “Tra-la-li” at regular intervals seemed, if anything, to increase in energy and desperation as the song marched grimly onwards, with the piano-playing at times practically orchestral in its amplitude and colour, resolutely supporting the singer to the bitter end. For some tastes, perhaps, a little TOO over-the-top – but not for mine! Any music written by a man who, upon visiting Niagara Falls, exclaimed “At last – fortissimo!” cries out for the kind of full-blooded performances which we certainly got during this splendid concert.

3 2 Tango and Friends – pleasures of the dance

Music by Astor Piazzolla and Peter Ludwig

LUDWIG : Tango Triste / Casar der Hund / E / Tango Nuevo / A.G.Mius

PIAZZOLLA : Oblivion / La muerte del angel / Seasons of Buenos Aires / Sprng and Winter / Le Grande Tango   Libertango

Catherine McKay (piano)

Slava Fainitski (violin)

Brenton Veitch (‘cello)

Matt Collie (percussion)

Rebekah Greig (accordion)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Series of Concerts

Wednesday 17th March, 12.15pm

For this concert, the group 3 2 Tango became four, and then five, firstly with percussionist Matt Collie joining the group, and a little later, accordion player Rebekah Greig. And, as if the pleasures of those tango rhythms and tones alone weren’t sufficient, we in the audience were able to luxuriate in the tango dancing of a couple who were introduced as “Sharon and Stephen”. What was more, we were invited by concert organiser Richard Greager to join in with the dancing if the spirit moved us so; but I suspect the presence of two fairly confident and polished dancers made it difficult for anybody else to feel they had something as good to put on display – and so only one other person, a woman, dancing solo, took up the invitation to the floor to join in, almost at the very end. For myself, I can report that my enjoyment of both music and dancing was sufficiently palpable for me to feel as though I’d been treated to a real-live tango experience, without ever leaving my seat!

Although the concert was described in the blurb as one “focusing on the legendary Tango composer Astor Piazzolla”, much of the first half featured the music of Peter Ludwig, a modern exponent of the tango both as composer and performer, the pianist in a duo called Tango Mortale, with ‘cellist Anja Lechner. The five tangos of his which 3 2 Tango presented during this concert were interesting and varied pieces, the composer preserving the traditional “fixed rhythm” of the dance while avoiding what a European reviewer called “the gloomy, depressive and low-spirited tangos which come from Argentina” – doubtless a sideswipe at the great Piazzolla and his imitators, here! For myself, I thought Ludwig’s music on the present showing itself lacked nothing in sultry expressiveness, though perhaps not as consistently dark-browed as Piazzolla’s, having more of an “emotion recollected in tranquility” feel to it. But, untrained though my ear might be in such things, I detected no marked “lurch into the mire of humanity” when, during the concert, Piazzolla’s music became the focus of our attention.

The concert began with Peter Ludwig’s Tango Triste – piano and violin evoking cool ambient spaces at the very start, into which Brenton Veitch’s ‘cello poured the most sonorous of tones, a lovely beginning.  Slava Fainitski’s violin and Catherine McKay’s piano dug into the rhythms, adding snap and volatility, with some percussive help from Matt Collie – the mood swung readily throughout from full-blooded and heartfelt physical address to sombre and sultry withdrawal, with lovely string slides adding to the ambivalence of the atmosphere. The dancers joined in with the next tango, Casar der Hund, their movements quite “tight” and controlled, very “together” and with little open space explored in the way that I imagined tango dancers did (of course, I’m conscious of showing my limited knowledge of things, here!)……

The next tango, enigmatically called E, ran a volatile course, with frequent changes of metre and lots of rubato – a lovely ‘cello solo once again, some “gypsy-sounding” violin-work, and then skyrocketting glissandi from the piano all built towards a spectacular flourish at the end. Again, with Tango Nuevo, feelings both ran deeply and coruscated the surface of things throughout, the agitated rhythms digging fiercely in, suggesting darker passions and emotions suited to a nightscape, whose uneasy calm was evoked by violin tremolandi, ‘cello pizzicati and piano murmurings, before irrupting once again and concluding with a spectacular downward slide – great stuff! And A.G.Mius (another enigmatic title) brought out a headlong helter-skelter dash from the trio, strings bouncing the bows rhythmically as the piano called the tune, the players generating terrific momentum throughout, the music suggesting more than a touch of Magyar gypsy to me in places, and none the worse for that.

Piazzolla’s music made its first appearance on the programme with Oblivion, the group being joined by accordion-player Rebekah Greig. Despite a short pause for some player re-alignment as a result of music being mislaid,  not a beat was missed after the restart, the music redolent with suspense and tension, and the accordion adding both colour and “edge” to the sound – the dancers moved haltingly and asymmetrically to this one, their steps seeming almost improvisatory, as did the music. La muerte del angel was much the same in effect, the piece building tensions by intensifying rhythms and crescendi. Almost thankfully, Seasons of Buenos Aires I found rather more discursive and easeful, though still atmospheric and descriptive; as was Spring and Winter, whose deep, sonorous and languid opening rhythms metamorphosed into something resembling Red Indians on the warpath before returning to a more piquant note to finish. Perhaps the most well-known of Piazzolla’s pieces, Le Grand Tango, written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1980s, delighted us with its full-on explorations of instrumental colour and gesture, the players revelling in the composer’s demands, and flexing their imaginations in the music’s different directions. After this, the final Libertango seemed comparatively straightforward, definitely one to dance to, though including our single free-spirited audience member, it remained a dancing menage a trios, the rest of us content with paying tribute to all of the performers at the end for a wonderful and spirited lunchtime’s music-making.

Martin Riseley – consorting with the Devil’s Fiddler

PAGANINI – 24 Caprices for Solo Violin

Martin Riseley (violin)

St.Andrew’s-on-theTerrace 2010 Series of Concerts

Sunday 14th March

Niccolo Paganini’s Op.1, the set of 24 Caprices for solo violin, remains the ultimate test of virtuosity for a violinist – these pieces explore almost every aspect of violin technique, and remain a unique example of performance art which has subsequently continued to inspire both composers and performers. Robert Schumann described Paganini’s effect upon the musical world as “the turning point in the history of virtuosity”, and  the greatest composers of the succeeding age, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Schumann himself were suitably inspired by the Genoese master’s brilliance to use his themes as the basis for some of their own compositions.

The Caprices are wonderfully varied in mood, and by no means stress virtuosity at the expense of melody or poetry – in general the earlier twelve are more “technical’ in that they use the idea or innovation as the basis for the work’s substance, whereas the later twelve tend to focus more on the musical, rather than technical ideas in each of the pieces, using the latter as a means rather than an end in itself. Having said that, the degree of technical difficulty exerted by the pieces throughout remains fairly much on the transcendental level, requiring a response from any performer that encompasses both mechanical and musical brilliance.

Violinist Martin Riseley exuded an attractively boyish confidence upon taking the platform, and with little ado launched himself and his instrument into a fearsomely bristling tumblewhirl of notes, most of which were in tune! The hit-and-miss count flashed and flickered throughout, but in fact, it was generally the high-lying stand-out notes, usually at the stratospheric ends of phrases that were most at risk, the player’s energy and determination taking the attack to the rapid-fire arpeggiations, and tossing the scintillations of melismatic flourishes everywhere. Whether it was the player or this listener I’m not entirely sure, but the degree of approximation regarding intonation seemed more pronounced in the first half-dozen caprices than in the remainder – either it was increased ear-tolerance on my part as the recital went on, or the player had “warmed up” during the first quarter and was now hitting his notes more truly. Probably it was a little of both – the “baptism by fire” of those first half-dozen pieces I thought at once scarifying, exhilarating and somewhat coruscating; so much so that, when the recital’s second quarter began I’d “settled into” the composer’s sound-world and the kind of sound that the violinist was making, and was feeling more in tune with what I was hearing.

Martin Riseley began his second “quarter” with the untitled piece marked “staccato”, a piece whose initial melody is legato with staccato phrase-ends, before fiendish staccato work is capped off by glissandi at the ends of each statement. Even more fiendish was the Maestoso No.8, with double-stopping at the outset leading to a kind of “reverse-pitching”, playing higher notes on lower strings! No.9 was a hunting-horn Rondo, in which the thematic content took precedence over the virtuosic display, even with the “ricochet” (throwing of the bow) displays; while No.10 featured a devilish trill that “spikes” the music, brilliantly thrown off. The Romance and Tarantella No.11 was great fun, the latter played with a lot of energy and clean intonation, flashes of brilliance alternating with juicy-sounding tones. At this point the violinist expressed the wish for an extra finger, checking his pockets for the freak of nature that would make his task easier – as well he might when faced with the demanding Allegro No.12, which called upon the player to use two strings, one the “pedal” note, the result seeming of an order of difficulty that would defeat all but the deftest technicians, the music sounding ungratefully atonal in places.

Ample compensation was provided after the interval by the attractively sardonic No.12 Allegro, the “Devil’s Laugh”, a descending passage in thirds after each melodic statement engendering a feeling of mocking irony. The following Moderato’s “Hunting-horn” calls and rhythmic trajectories were nicely evocative, while the Pesato No.16 readily brought to mind Liszt’s keyboard pyrotechnics, with its octaves, thirds and sixths. Liszt would have responded strongly to the following Presto No.16 as well – a dark, agitated and pungent expression of troubled feeling – but instead chose to transcribe the following Sostenuto-Andante, which appears in his “Paganini Etudes” set, the middle section of which here was a breakneck whirl of octaves, returning to the theme, but with rapid fingerings and bowings in the concluding flourishes – impressively played! Just as commanding was Martin Riseley’s realisation of the “Corrente Allegro” No.18, with its relentless descending scales in thirds, capturing the daring of it all, even if not absolutely note-perfect.

The last selection of six began with a veritable circus act, the Lento-Allegro assai No.19 featuring a kind of “high-wire” performance on a single string, followed by a veritable grounding of sombre tones in the Allegretto No.20, whose drone bass note gave an eerie effect when set against the opening hymn-like tune, and whose vigorous central dance brought strong, forthright playing to bear on the music. I would have called the romanticism of No.21 tongue-in-cheek rather than the programme note’s “cynical”, as evidenced by the rapid scampering dissolutions of agitation at the end of each “stanza” – a piece more difficult than at first apparent, judging by the intonation difficulties in places. Just as demanding sounded the next piece, with its rolling tenths beginning and rounding off the music with a skitterish middle section. No.23 presented a call-to-arms presented in octaves, with a passionate gypsy-fiddle section demanding rapid scale-like passages jump from octave to octave, frenzied energies that dissipate and finish the music on a wistful, almost dying note, brilliantly realised.

The most famous of these pieces (think of Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov) came last – first the plain theme, then rapid arpeggio decorations, followed by octave doublings, and a wonderful “Will-o’-the Wisp” dancing episode, with descending thirds and ascending sixths, as well as the notorious left-handed pizzicato (its only appearance in the whole work). Martin Riseley’s performance of all of this was, in a word, staggering, by this time hitting his straps consistently and, though obviously tired, maintaining what seemed like superhuman energy levels to realise the music’s different voices and underlying momentum.

Reading back over what I’ve written has made me realise the extent I’ve described the music, perhaps more than I’ve focused on the actual performance – I think that’s the outcome of playing that’s stressed the importance of the music at least as much as the actual execution of it – there may be even more brilliant violinists than Martin Riseley around, but certainly, on this showing none more musical.

SMP Ensemble: Nexus – Poles Apart

SMP Ensemble

Music by Jack Body, Anton Killin, Simon Eastwood, Karlo Margetic,

Jan.W.Morthenson, Charles Ives, John Adams, Francis Poulenc,

Henryk Gorecki, Richard Robertshawe, Andrzej Nowicki, Carol Shortis

The SMP Ensemble

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts March 2010

Wednesday 10th March

The SMP Ensemble was formed in 2008, and set up as a forum for the work of Wellington-based composers and performers. Over a short period it has, under the direction of Andrzej Nowicki,  already developed a reputation as a fresh and stimulating force in the capital’s contemporary music activity, organising and performing a number of concerts. Its most recent was a presentation at one of the St.Andrew’s March 2010 concerts, set up to run parallel to the NZ International Arts Festival music offerings.

One of the concert’s themes was a Polish connection, hence the “Poles Apart” reference in the concert’s title. A number of the works drew inspiration from Polish writing, history or political events, among them a work by local composer Carol Shortis commemorating the arrival, sixty-five years ago, of a group of Polish refugee children in New Zealand, many of whom still live in this country. Other works by Simon Eastwood and Karlo Margetic took as their starting-points events or artistic achievements whose source was Poland. As it turned out, the concert presented a tantalising mix of home-grown and off-shore music whose sources of inspiration seemed to demonstrate the “music in the air” maxim.

Jack Body’s “Turtle Time” sets a text by Russell Haley, here spiritedly spoken and enacted by Karlo Margetic, his powerful expression of the words and use of the physical spaces heightening the piece’s theatrical qualities. The ensemble produced some lovely sounds which variously chatter, babble, scintillate and clatter, the sound-picture flipping between ambient and pointillistic, sometimes running with, sometimes countering the words of the poem. These constantly-changing colours and patterns of the soundscape were a source of continual delight, apart from the organ’s swell-pedal which I found too crudely applied and rather irritating.  Given that Karlo Margetic used his voice and the stage so well, I wondered whether the musicians and their instruments could have been placed more outrageously antiphonally, emphasising both the fragmentary nature of the realisation and the efforts made by the ensemble itself to bring their individual sounds more in accord with one another. Interestingly, the voice wasn’t microphoned or otherwise enhanced in any way, as it is on the work’s only recording that I know of, made for Kiwi Records in the 1970s – for me the piece worked just as well in the “real” physical space of St.Andrew’s, the sounds exchanging the claustrophobia of the recording’s close-microphoning for a freer, more theatrical interaction. At the piece’s end, the escape by the “voice” from the turtles’ predatory time-snapping, past wave upon kaleidoscopic wave of obsessive instrumental obstruction, had a satisfying, almost ritualistic feel to it in concert. Abstractionists might object, but my feeling regarding a piece such as this, with so many overtly theatrical elements already present, is that the work’s innate capacity for suggesting interactions in visual terms cries out to be exploited further.

Anton Killi’s electroacoustic piece A Priori resembled for me a message in human speech deprived of its consonants, nostalgically accompanied by feed-back-like squeaks, whines and ambient “radio noise” interference, suggesting to my ears memories of the golden age of radio. Along with these half-words underpinned with white-noise resonances came Ligeti-like vocalisings, impulses of communication either dragging themselves from the pupa or distending their resonances into lengthy, ritualistic sequences of mesmeric mystery.  Less equivocal was Simon Eastwood’s “Jericho – Walls Will Fall”, one of several works in the concert with a Polish connection, in this case the music inspired by a protest song from the 1980s Polish Solidarity Movement, describing how walls will fall if people have the will to knock them down. Written for a Brass Trio, featuring trombone, horn and trumpet, the work constantly delights with its inventive explorations over four brief movements. The first sounds plenty of warning warring notes, each instrument in turn allowed to take the lead with its own patternings. Then, Alex Morton’s horn and Mark Davey’s trombone mute their tones and become nature-drones, leaving Dave Kempton’s trumpet to play its own flourishes, before joining with the others in further melodic and rhythmic combinations. A toccata-like piece follows, trumpet and horn stuttering while the trombone swaggers and struts its stuff. By this time the walls seem to have capitulated and fallen, because the fourth-movement brass cantilena is valedictory in tone, though more insistent at the point where things abruptly cease, the fight having been won.

Karlo Margetic’s “Hommage a W.L.” is a tribute to the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, the gesture itself an interesting idea, giving rise to the question regarding which composer’s work should take the credit for whatever success the ensuing piece earns for itself or is accorded. Quoting Lutoslawski’s idea of using aleatoric compositional techniques in a free and spontaneous way, Margetic characterises the older composer’s avoidance of rigour and dry complexity as “a wonderful act of subversion against the dogmatic avant-garde”. The piece (for mixed ensemble) begins with a woodblock-like roll (repeated at certain “get ready” transition-points throughout the work), and a “Bluebeard’s Door” chord immediately following, whose sustained resonances beautifully build the musical argument through melismatic strings-and-wind repetitions towards magically transformed stratospheric explorations of similar material. A string quartet “jams it” along with tattoo-like percussion rhythms, screwing up the tension until the breaking tides wash up and leave aeolian harp-like figurations teetering backwards and forwards, the strings and winds returning to tighten and screw things up again, to the point of near-frenzy. After still more irruptions the energies and tensions slowly dissipate and unravel, brass and piano contributing to a somewhat crepuscular feeling, which the composer promptly and somewhat unexpectedly banishes with an abrupt forte and a pulsating woodblock having the final word. I thought this was a great work, deserving of future notice.

I liked also Jan W. Morthenson’s Unisono, for bassoon, piano and electronics, a piece in which two instruments play with the idea of working in unison, but experience all kinds of tensions while trying to do so. Kylie Nesbit’s bassoon was amplified after her opening acoustic gambit in tandem with Jonathan Berkahn’s piano harmonies, Richard Robertshawe contriving all kinds of timbral modifications to the former, creating almost surreal effects, especially during the ensuing game of chase with the piano, both instruments occasionally pushed to their physical extremities for single notes or chords, and each trying to outdo the other in constructing edifices of sound. Even more of a “cosmic landscape” was attempted by Charles Ives’ 1906 piece “The Unanswered Question”, a work not published for over thirty years after its creation. Ives writes beautifully for the strings at the beginning, the chords slowly oscillating and changing colours before the trumpet enters (here placed at the back of the church, as were wind and brass ensembles), interacting with the antiphonal forces with a view to solving certain of life’s mysteries, but being little the wiser at the end of it all.

After the interval came John Adams’ rumbustious (and, I thought, rather gruff!) tribute to John Phillip Sousa, one which didn’t really do much for me, apart from evoking marching feet and a sense of cumulative excitement. Far more to my taste was the wonderful Sonata for Bassoon and Clarinet by Francis Poulenc, played here at a crackling pace by Kylie Nesbit and Andrzej Nowicki, with sheer momentum and nimble articulation the order of the day right up to the last few drolleries being lightly tossed off. A nicely-judged slow movement, with each instrument a perfect foil for the other, was followed by a finale whose romp of exchange would have melted all but the hardest of hearts. Songful clarinet and droll bassoon momentarily resembled Don Quixote and Sancho Panza setting off home to recover from the latest set of exploits, while the circus clowns returned to flop-start the exchanges for the stop-start concluding statements of the work. A more telling contrast than the Piano Sonata by Henryk Gorecki (he of “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” fame) couldn’t be imagined. Its ferocity and teeth-in-the-bone tenacity owed much to Bartok, with similar drive and folk-like primitives and repetitions. The brief but exceedingly lovely slow movement provided but a respite for the sensibilities before the finale burst into the ambient spaces, drove through contrasting episodes, then teased us all somewhat with whimsical juxtapositionings of energy and reflectiveness towards the end, before finally delivering a brutal-sounding payoff to finish. Great playing throughout by Sam Jury.

This concert had promised both substance and variety, which by this time had been achieved handsomely on both counts, though there was still more to come. Andrzej Nowicki’s whimsically-titled Concertino 5b was light relief after the Gorecki work, featuring two musicians dressed in pyjamas, one with an amplified clarinet and the other working the electronics.

It was an entertaining piece of music-theatre, with the energetic clarinettist gradually running quite seriously out of steam, and going to sleep, making in the process some suitably drowsy sounds. Synthesised resonances of what the clarinet had commented on and shared before added a kind of coda to the remnants of the performance.

Finally, another work with Polish resonances was performed, a short cantata-like piece by Carol Shortis whose music was inspired and based on both a Polish folk-song “Polskie Kwiaty” and a13th-century hymn Bogurodzica, and was written to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the arrival in New Zealand of Polish refugee children in 1944. Most of these children had been separated from or lost their parents and other family members. Carol Sortis wrote “Tesknota” (Yearning”) as a response to the story told by one of these refugees, using the traditional melodies of folk-song and hymn to evoke “Old Poland” before the Russian and German invasions of 1939.

Beginning darkly on a double bass, then a ‘cello, and climbing into the higher strings the music sweetly and lyrically bloomed as the choir entered, with the words “Spiewa Ci obcy wiatr” (A foreign wind sings to you) to the accompaniment of wind noises made by additional voices. Counter-tenor Laurie Fleming rejoined with “A serce teskni…” (But the heart yearns….”), the voice truthful and clear, if not ideally strong in the lower register, so that he’s somewhat masked by the other voices at times. Stronger and brighter was soprano Olga Gryniewicz with her “Stokrotki, fiolki, kaczence i maki” (Daisies, violets, buttercups and poppies), the voice pure, radiant and beautiful, the high note at the start pure and sweet with little hint of strain. From here, strings and piano radiantly sing an almost Martinu-like accompaniment, the counter-tenor and soprano voices rising briefly for the last time out of the instrumental and vocal ambiences which go on to conclude the work. Heartfelt and extremely moving.