Justine Cormack, violin
James Bush, cello
Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar
Works by Robert de Visée, Jean Marie Leclair, and Marin Marais
Alex Taylor, Onwhatgrounds (for violin, cello, and theorbo)
Maurice Ravel, Sonata for violin and cello
Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France, Nuages, SweetGeorgiaBrown, MinorSwing
St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington
Sunday 7 May, 3 pm
This was the first concert of Wellington Chamber Music’s 2023 season, and it promises a great season to come. Les Voisins were scheduled to play this concert two years ago, but the performance was interrupted by a Covid-19 lockdown, which prevented the talented Australian theorbo player Simon Martyn-Ellis from travelling to New Zealand.
The theorbo is a kind of giant lute and is plucked or strummed. It was invented in the 1580s when players wanted an extra bass instrument for accompanying singers in the first operas, so they took a bass lute and extended the neck, adding seven additional strings to extend the bass register. Its bottom note is lower than that of the cello. Whereas the seven higher strings are fretted and tuned like a guitar, the lower ones are tuned diatonically, like a harp. The low strings are deep and resonant, and the instrument is said to have been much in demand as a continuo instrument. As for a harpsichord, the theorbo player reads the bass line and improvises over the top.
The first work on the programme was by Robert de Visée (1650-1725), a prelude and passacaglia in D minor for solo theorbo. The composer was a musician in the court of Louis XIV, and his works for guitar, lute, and theorbo were written down by others. The prelude sounded tentative, but the passacaglia more assured. Still, it took me a few minutes to get used to its restrained sound.
Next, a sonata for violin and continuo in E minor by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a work which my companion plays often. Leclair is well known to violinists as the founder of the French school of violin playing, and is still a popular composer for violin. This work had both theorbo and cello on continuo, which helpfully reinforced the theorbo against the brilliance of Justine Cormack’s mid-nineteenth century French violin. The first and third movements had their heart in the dance (Leclair was also known as a dancing master), with lively and rhythmic playing, while the middle movement was a sarabande, played gently by theorbo with violin. It is easy to see why so many of Leclair’s compositions have survived.
The second work by de Visée was a suite in C minor for solo theorbo, comprising a prelude, an allemande, and a ‘plainte au tombeau des Mesdemoiselles de Visée, filles de l’Auteur’. This beautiful and melancholy work was written for the souls of the composer’s two daughters. It was followed by a work by Marin Marais (1656-1728) played by all three instruments. The Bells of St Geneviève is much better known than the works that preceded it in the programme (I’m sure I have heard it on RNZ Concert more than once) and is lively and jazzy, with exciting fortes and idiomatic playing by the excellent Justine Cormack.
Finally, the last work of the first half of the concert: Alex Taylor’s On what grounds. This was commissioned by Les Voisins for this tour, with support from Creative NZ, who certainly got value for their money. It is a set of six movements in the style of a Baroque suite. Justine Cormack introduced the work by quoting the composer, who described it as ‘a series of musical games with an emotional core’ in the chaconne. Taylor wanted to explore the potential of the fretted theorbo alongside the flexibility of the violin and cello, which can glissando between notes via the quartertones between them (whereas the theorbo can only play semitones).
Cormack mentioned the distortions created as the intervals are sometimes stretched or compressed. Taylor, she said, saw the work in terms of patterns of stress and release, with the tension of the quartertones built up in the chaconne section and released in the epilogue. The programme note said that the work explores the notion of a ground: literally, in the case of the ground bass in the chaconne, but also in the sense of ‘returning to a fixed point, collections of harmonies derived from a single pitch, or variations on a specific musical interval’.
This was a delicious work to listen to in the context of the pieces that went before. It was ear candy, with unexpected and interesting sonorities one after another. The chaconne was my favourite movement. (My notes say ‘weird – but very interesting’.) The composer had responded intelligently to the Baroque works in the programme and his work sounded as poised and stylish as they did, evoking Baroque forms within a completely contemporary soundworld. We were disappointed not to hear it twice.
After the interval, the theorbist took a break whilst Cormack and Bush played Ravel’s less well-known sonata for violin and cello in A minor. The players grew up living next door to each other as children, and performed with each other from an early age. Cellist James Bush often performs with some of Europe’s best Baroque musicians, such as the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and Concerto Köln, and that Baroque flexibility was on show.
The Ravel work was written between 1920 and 1922 and is dedicated to Debussy, who had recently died. This work follows Ravel’s principal composition of the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and was written at about the same time as his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel had recently heard Kodaly’s sonata for violin and cello, and the second and fourth movements are said to be influenced by it (though my Hungarian companion heard more Bartók than Kodaly in them). I enjoyed the rustic, lively dances, but my favourite movement was the third movement, a slow and beautiful chorale. The first movement had that characteristic Ravel quality of always moving and never quite arriving. Irrespective of what influenced whom, this is a gorgeous work and deserves to be heard more often.
Finally, since we were almost at the point when Ravel discovered jazz, we were treated to three transcriptions of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club de France: Reinhardt’s versions of Sweet Georgia Brown, Nuages, and Minor Swing. Simon the Theorbist was revealed to be an excellent guitarist as well, and Cormack did a lovely Grappelli. These were terrific (although it always sounds a bit odd to my ears when classically trained musicians faithfully reproduce a transcription of a work that would have had considerable improvisation). A swinging end to a delightful concert, and a great start to WCM’s 2023 season.