Haydn and Mozart Camerata’s perfect fellow-churchgoers at Wellington’s St.Peter’s-0n-Willis

Camerata presents: HAYDN IN THE CHURCH 2023

Josef HAYDN – Symphony No. 17 in F Major Hob.1.17
Wolfgang MOZART – Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat K.364

Anne Loeser (violin) / Victoria Jaenecke (viola)
Camerata Ensemble

St.Peter’s Church-on-Willis, Wellington

Friday, October 20th, 2023

Sometimes one goes to a concert which by dint of the music and the playing seems  not a moment too short or too long – this evening, with merely two works on the programme (one of which took  less than two thirds of the time of the other), it felt as though we were transported from one to the other by a kind of osmosis, as there was no “proper” interval between the two, merely what felt like a “luftpause” to allow the slightly different arrangement of the two works to be set up.

The programme opened with a Haydn symphony (No.17 in F Major), part of a series that has been a feature of the ensemble’s presentations of late. This was an early work of the composer’s , and not unlike some kind of extended three-part operatic overture in effect – certainly a grand and varied beginning to one’s listening for the evening.

Straightaway I was transported by the openness of the sound during the work’s first few bars, with the horn timbres taking the music al fresco, and the joyfulness of the dancing rhythms doing the rest  As in some of the earlier Mozart symphonies, the winds also frequently coloured the texture with long but supple lines –  so although the strings had the bulk of the melodic material, the winds  (including the horns) frequently “coloured’ the ambiences, which in this symphony were lively and not a little exploratory, developing both the theme’s upward-rushing muscularity and making use of numerous “offshoots” of impulse in unexpected ways.

The slow movement was graciousness itself at the beginning, its sequences seeming to weave an endless continuation of variants of the opening – I became lost in its enchantment and its apparent inexhaustibility – no contrivance or striving for effect, but simply creativity being given quiet but purposeful energy. As with the previous two movements, the finale finds ways of making the expected unexpected – the triple-time Allegro turns, twists, runs and jumps, and generally led our ears a merry dance! Again, the horns open up the spaces suggested by the music’s energies, and the winds’ rustic colourings delight the sensibilities. Despite the movement’s brevity, Haydn’s seemingly boundless invention seemed to once more carry our interest along with the sounds’ continued delight in discovery.

Nothing could have better prepared us for the delights that were to follow, with Camerata leader Anne Loeser and violist Victoria Jaenecke entering to play for us Mozart’s adorable K.364, the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for violin and viola. From the beginning the sound was lovely, with especially telling dynamic variation from winds and horns and lower strings – the violins themselves seemed a trifle overwhelmed by their colleagues’ characterful strains at first, though the wonderful “Mannheim crescendo” that Mozart gives us in this first tutti here really made an exciting impact. Both soloists with their first notes were silver-toned and ethereal, each more so than I expected they would be, even though their passage-work was exemplary. Anne Loeser led the way into the beautiful minor-key development, each soloist making the most of the music’s pathos, and supported by the orchestra players so well. And their teamwork during the cadenza was exemplary, playing into each others’ music with real aplomb, though both gave me a start by plunging back into the allegro more quickly with their concluding trills than those on my favourite recording (the Oistrakhs pere and fils).

I couldn’t imagine the slow movement being better done than here, with each of the soloists seeming to “play out” more than in the first movement, while integrating their tones clearly and sensitively in the exchanges, the cadenza passage a highlight of the performance with its heart-stopping sense of time almost standing still. And the finale reinforced this “playing as one” kind of Elysium-like culmination of energies and purposes throughout the work – we all  enjoyed the  tidal ebbing and flowing between violin and viola, and also soloists and orchestra, as the work arched upwards towards its culmination in a final grand accord.

A new film commemorates the 1941 Babiy Yar Massacre of Ukraine Jews by the Nazis

Featuring excerpts from “Requiem – The Holocaust” by Israeli composer Boris Pigovat, a work for orchestra and viola soloist.

Narrator – Valentyna Bugrak
Composer – Boris Pigovat
Viola soloist – Xi Liu
Conductor – Martin Riseley
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Designer and Producer – Donald Maurice
Director – Bill McCarthy
Assistant Producer and translator – Xi Liu
Photographer – Dwight Pounds
Sound Engineer  – Graham Kennedy

Project funded by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

A 2008 concert in Wellington given by the then Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei featured the very first performance in New Zealand of Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s “Requiem”, with violist Donald Maurice as the soloist.  This work, completed in 1995, commemorated the horrific massacre by the Nazis of thousands of Jewish citizens of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv during 1941. Pigovat’s grandparents and an aunt were among those murdered by the occupying Nazi forces in what has come to be known as “the Babiy Yar massacre”.

The “Requiem” was originally intended to be premiered in Israel, but (not inappropriately) the venue was changed by dint of circumstances to Kyiv itself, an event notable for the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in the city and the Goethe Institute, the work finally being premiered in 2001. Almost eight years later came the first New Zealand performance mentioned above (attended by the composer, and recorded by Atoll Records), which was followed by an invitation to the solo violist, Donald Maurice, to take part in the work’s first performance in Germany later in the year.  (The Middle C review of the Atoll recording can be read here: https://middle-c.org/2011/09/boris-pigovats-requiem-a-stunning-cd-presentation/).

All of this is by way of preamble to the 2020 making of a film, one which designer/producer Donald Maurice calls a “miracle”, considering it was all put together during a pandemic! The name “Lacrimosa Dies Illa” (Latin for “Full of tears will be that day”) is taken from the Dies Irae {“Day of Wrath”) sequence of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, words which have previously inspired various composers who have undertaken to compose a Requiem. The production boldly juxtaposes past and present images of the actual location with narrations of actual events, a commentary by the composer on the work’s specific content and general structure, and filmed excerpts from a performance of the work in the Adam Concert Room at the University’s School of Music.

The film opens with scenes from the place close to the ravine where the atrocities took place, now an idyllic park-like memorial, with long avenues of trees and various commemorative monuments and statues, one in particular dedicated to the children who lost their lives there. The latter is singled out in the presentation by a sudden orchestral cry of pain and lament during the introductory music of the opening “Requiem Aeternam” movement accompaniment. After this, Ukrainian violist Valentyna Bugrak, a member of the Kyiv Kamerata Ensemble orchestra, begins to narrate an outline of the horrific story of the massacres. Filmed on location at the park by Roman Strakhov, Bugrak appears at various times during the film to recount the continued “saga of atrocity” which took place at that location. Somehow, for me, her youthful presence and beauty, though separated by more years than would have allowed her to be directly associated with the events, seems to speak directly for the children whose lives were not allowed the chance to blossom, but instead caught up and ended by these brutal actions of the Nazis towards people they deemed expendable. Her commentary also outlines the tactics employed by the Nazis to trick the Jewish population into thinking that people were to be relocated to their historic homeland, and thus securing their compliance up to the point where it was too late for them to escape.

Composer Boris Pigovat, filmed at Rosh Ha’Ayin in Israel by Gyuqin Cao, is depicted explaining and  demonstrating on a piano the Requiem’s leading motifs, how and why they make their appearance and where they occur in the course of the music. Sitting with him is the violist we see performing much of the work, Xi Liu – I would have liked her interaction with the composer to have been rather less passive – there’s no chance for her to articulate any of her feelings about any parts of the work and its particular challenges, except via her superb playing with the NZSM Orchestra conducted by Martin Riseley. But to be fair, the film’s duration, five minutes over the hour, doesn’t waste a second in regard to what it does contain, a powerful and gripping amalgam of information, context and creative insight regarding content that’s at once fascinating and deeply tragic.

Some may find Pigovat’s explanations and analyses of his material too much of a good thing – but he does have the gift of describing his raw musical material and its relevance to the whole in emotive-based nontechnical language, which enables one to connect with a set of raw kind of impulses whose effects can be characterised in words – he readily points out his influences from non-Jewish sources, such as the Christian Requiem and its use of Latin as a language of ritual in both structure and content, but is able to set it in a kind of context of connection with faith and humanity in general, even a unifying force for those prepared to make the journey. The film is  good at demonstrating how the composer’s “raw” material is employed in the finished product, by playing orchestral rehearsal excerpts featuring the same motifs and their interaction. Pigovat is particularly eloquent when  explaining the significance of his use of the Latin title for the second movement “Dies Irae”, and its interaction with the Jewish prayer “Shema Israel”, paying special attention in the music to the idea of the horror being a kind of mechanism, a “murder machine” as well as a “devilish dance”. The orchestral performance which follows uses various concentration camp images to underline the sense of persecution and mechanised and systematic elimination of a significant body of people, the playing by the NZSM musicians under Martin Riseley’s direction building up and into a ferocious orchestrally-wrought maelstrom, followed by an equally macabre “dance of death”, concluding with the composer’s idea of a beating heart slowly dying, signifying life ebbing from those people caught up in the nightmare.

In view of the film’s title I expected much would be made of the similarly-named third movement of the Requiem – and so it proves, with Pigovat indicating his awareness of the usual response by composers to the “Lacrimosa” (weeping) text, but wanting something different in the wake of the Dies Irae movement, expressions of anger and strangulated pain, leading to a kind of madness whose intensity seems to take the human spirit to a state of oblivion in which everything is “burnt out”, the music primordial and impulse-driven – an amazing solo viola passage in which these things are unleashed is given in full, the music at once insensible and searingly eloquent in Xi Liu’s hands. Pigovat expresses the idea given to him by Prokofiev in his opera Semyon Kotko, a sequence in which a man is executed and his fiancee will not believe he is dead –  and like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet she loses her mind with grief, the music strange and “lost”, until an “explosion” of realisation finally brings tears. Pigovat was inspired at this point by Mozart’s Lacrimosa in his “Requiem”, the music a series of finely-wrought impulses of grief ebbing and flowing between silences……

The composer thought the concluding “Lux Aeterna” would be the lightest and most serene part of the work, but felt that  it needed a “fresh” approach, with themes that had not been heard before. We hear the themes sketched out for us, and then played by the soloist and orchestra, the music calling for a renewal of faith and hope – a beautiful passage for solo flute which the film highlights “speaks” for the character of this section of the music, and the Martinu-like ostinati for various instruments takes the music to the coda, a sequence which Pigovat considers connected with the souls of the dead, the viola interacting with sombre brass and percussion, the tones allowed to resonate into silence.

Valentyna Bugrak returns at the film’s end to tell us of how much was remembered and retold by the survivors of this tragic series of events, more so that we might appreciate and understand the full extent of the atrocity and be reminded that this must never be allowed to happen again.  The film’s gathering together of history, commentary and deeply-felt creative response concerning the horrific events at Babiy Yar inevitably makes for, in places uncomfortably heart-rending viewing and listening, but it serves to further remind us of our own human capacities for inhuman behaviour which, as more recent events have disturbingly demonstrated, can take unexpected shape and form in so many ways.

A website devoted to the  film will be launched shortly, one containing the documentation through which people’s work on all aspects of the production can be fully recognised and acknowledged. As this is the 80th anniversary year of the massacre, a number of countries have already indicated their interest in screening this film at this time.  Meanwhile, a trailer for the film can be viewed at the following link: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um-KIbm48ck&feature=youtu.be

“Morgen” – pianist Rae de Lisle makes a welcome return to performing, with ‘cellist Andrew Joyce – and with help from Julia Joyce

Songs for ‘Cello and Piano
Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Rae de Lisle (piano)

items marked * with Julia Joyce (viola)

BRAHMS : Liebestreu Op3, No.1 / Minnelied Op.71, No.5 / “Immer leise wird mein Schlummer Op.105 No.2
“Wie melodien zieht es mir leise durch den Sinn” Op.105, No.1 / Sapphische Ode Op.94 No.4
Feldeinsamkeit Op.86 No.2 / Wiegenlied Op.49 No.4
DVORAK: Als die alte Mutter Op.55 No.4 / Lass mich allein Op.82 No.1
REYNALDO HAHN – L’heure exquise / A Chloris    FAURE – Apres un reve Op.7 No.1
SCHUMANN – Widmung Op.25, No.1 / Du bist wie eine Blume Op.25 No.4 / Mondnacht Op.39 No.5
BRAHMS – Zwei Gesange Op.91 – *Gestillte Sehnsucht / *Geistliches Wiegenlied
ERICH KORNGOLD – Marietta’s Lied – “Gluck, das mir verblieb”
SCHUBERT – Du Bist die Ruh Op.59 No.3 / Nacht und Traume Op.43 No.2
ALFREDO CATALANI – Ebben? Ne andro lontana / RICHARD STRAUSS – *Morgen  Op.27 No.4

Atoll Records  ACD 280

This recording has gone to the top of my “play for friends” list!  The beauty and expressiveness of it all instantly captivates whomever I demonstrate the disc to, and never fails to re-ignite my own initial struck-dumb response  – beginning as a “double distillation” of beauty, with Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello and Rae de Lisle’s piano exquisitely duetting their way through vistas of the utmost enchantment, it transforms into a trio when a fellow-traveller, violist Julia Joyce briefly joins the pair for an equally rhapsodic mid-journey sojourn, and then reunites with them right at the end. The recording is, of course, a “family affair”, cellist’ Andrew Joyce being the son-in-law of pianist Rae de Lisle, and violist Julia Joyce her daughter, and the ‘cellist’s partner – whether as a duo or a trio, their combination, on the strength of this recording, produces for this listener an unforgettable amalgam of artistry and feeling.

For pianist Rae de Lisle, this album has meant something of a “return to life” as a performer, having over the past quarter-century been in retirement through injury from her previous career as a successful concert pianist – though never having heard her play “live” I well recall a series of television programmes from around the 1970s featuring her as the soloist in a number of presentations of Beethoven piano concertos, recorded in those halcyon days when people in charge of New Zealand television regarded the arts as a necessary component of what went to air to the public. De Lisle, of course, subsequently became one of the crucial figures involved with fellow-pianist Michael Houstoun’s rehabilitation as a performer after the latter suffered similar injuries, helping him “remodel” his piano technique to a point where he was able to return to public playing. She herself describes in a personal note something of her own process of dealing with injury and her painstaking “retraining” to the point where she could actually make music again, and of her immense joy in being able to collaborate with the talented musicians in her own family!

What was indubitably given to her many piano students over the years of her indisposition poignantly “mirrors” the loss experienced by us in having the quality of pianism such as can be heard on this new CD cruelly denied us over the years. In the course of listening to these treasurable tracks, one readily appreciates – in fact, right from the disc’s beginning (featuring a group of Brahms’ songs given an eloquent introduction with Liebestreu Op.3 No. 1,) – how the “line” of lyrical expression is so unerringly shaped by both instruments, with the piano preparing the ground for the ‘cello in so many subtle ways, in the course of a handful of phrases suggesting and then leading, shaping the way forward and then echoing the fulfilment by the ‘cello of the music’s expressive quality. This piece epitomises the creative interplay at work in so many varied ways throughout the rest of the disc, as does the succeeding Minnelied Op,71 No. 5, demonstrating such exquisite sensibility from both players as to bring tears to the eyes of those susceptible to such things!

Both of the Dvořák settings are “lump-in-the-throat” affairs as realised here, de Lisle bringing out the music’s astringent quality of reminiscence in the piano’s opening to Als die alte Mutter Op 55 No.4, which so sharpens the sensibilities for the hushed quality of what follows, with Joyce’s ‘cello tone fusing the voice of the “mother” with that of the narrator, as the vocal line catches an individual accent or phrase which rivets the attention. And the gentle melancholy of Lasst mich allein Op.82 No.1 speaks volumes in the subtlety with which the minor key-shift deepens the emotion.

There’s insufficient space in which to comment on all of the tracks – but their characterisations by these two artists readily transport the listener into what Robert Schumann called “wondrous regions”, with Schumann’s own music ready to illustrate these magical excursions – the central, beautifully half-lit sequence at the centre of Widmung Op.25 No. 1, for example, followed by a beautifully rapt Du bist wie eine Blume Op.25 No.24, and the more extended, equally hypnotic Mondnacht Op.39 No.5. And, of course, there’s a brief but telling augmented strand contributing its own resonance to the proceedings, in the form of Julia Joyce’s viola, adding its wholly distinctive voice to those of the ‘cello-and-piano duo, in a pair of songs composed by Brahms for the violinist Joseph Joachim, the Zwei Gesange Op.91. The reprise of the first song is a particularly melting sequence, the viola and ‘cello duetting in counterpoint with rapturous accord, while the brighter-eyed setting of the carol “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein” imparts a warmly ritualistic aspect to the musical collaboration, by turns full-throated and gently reassuring.

I ought to mention Andrew Joyce’s astonishingly candid realisation of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied, from the opera Die tote Stadt during which his instrument sings the vocal lines with almost unbearable emotion, “inhabiting” the intensity of characterisation that the music suggests so readily. The disc ends, somewhat less fraughtfully, with another stellar display of string-playing, Julia Joyce’s viola substituting for the usual violin in Richard Strauss’s Morgen Op.27 No.4, the combination triumphantly expressing the essential flavour of the composer’s regard for the voice and his love for his wife, Pauline, in a new day’s blessed context.

Beautifully-balanced, warm and clear recorded sound completes a most attractive issue from “Atoll”.

Jennifer Stumm and Te Koki Trio share honours at Wellington’s MFC

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Music by Michael Williams, György Kurtág, Schumann, and Brahms

MICHAEL WILLIAMS – Spirit flies Sun Rises
GYÖRGY KURTÁG – Three Pieces for Viola Solo (from “Signs, Games and Messages”)
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Scherzo in C Minor from FAE Sonata  / Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor Op.60 “Werther”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 8th August, 2019

What an excellent idea it was of Chamber Music New Zealand’s to invite viola virtuoso Jennifer Stumm here to perform with Wellington’s Te Koki Trio! – her presence enabled a richly varied programme to be performed with a unique distinction in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, a programme that’s currently on tour throughout the country.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Stumm currently holds Professorships of viola studies in institutions both in Vienna and London, and teaches and gives concerts about the globe, with a particular interest in supporting young musicians from developing countries, being the founder and co-director of Ilumina, a São-Paulo-based chamber music collective and social initiative whose activities foster rising talent from Latin America at the Iuumina Festival and on tour around the world.

She’s been an advocate for her instrument ever since taking up the viola at the age of eight, calling it “the imperfect instrument” in the sense of having something uniquely expressive to offer to music listeners and performers, winning “firsts” in performance prizes for the viola in various international competitions, making acclaimed recordings, and working with some of the world’s most prestigious and legendary musicians , such as the Beaux Arts Trio and the Alban Berg Quartet.

In this concert she was heard as a soloist (all too briefly) in György Kurtág’s Three pieces for Viola Solo, and then as a duettist with pianist Jian Liu in Schuman’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures) and Brahms’ Scherzo from the “F-A-E” Sonata. Finally, she joined Te Koki Trio in a heartfelt performance of Brahms’ Third Piano Trio in C Minor, to which the subtitle  “Werther” is often added, due to the composer’s own insistence that the music is about the fate of the character in Goethe’s eponymous novel. Throughout her performances the printed programme’s “Washington Post” quotation – “an opal-like beauty” – from a review of Stumm’s playing, repeatedly came to my mind.

Before Stumm made her appearance in the concert it was Te Koki Trio’s task to open the concert with a CMNZ-commissioned work from Hamilton composer Michael Williams for a Piano Trio, one titled Spirit Flies Sun Rises. In an eloquent programme note the composer indicated that his initial motivation for the work was an image in his mind of the scattering of the ashes of an uncle by the wind at Raglan, imparting a sense of something like “a bird in flight or perhaps a leaping deer”, a spirit becoming part of “the great all”, while for those living the world still turns and the sun rises.

The unexpected death of the composer’s younger brother just as the work was being freshly addressed after a break gave rise to an “enormously cathartic and unforgettable” experience of re-evaluation of what Williams wanted the work to say, further intensifying the idea of a spirit leaving the earth and being freed. The end result as heard in the Michael Fowler Centre on Thursday evening was something as ethereal and “liberated” in sound as were the spirits of the departed in substance – the work set long-breathed, soulful tones, perhaps of quiet mourning or remembrance, against scintillations of gossamer-like freedom.

It seemed like a kind of nature-ritual, with earthly things both letting go and reclaiming impulses of energy whose time had come to move elsewhere, or perhaps to “return”. What the musicians did seemed to transcend normal manifestations of feeling and energy – Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello intoned what felt like uplifted, trance-like responses to the happenings, while Jian Liu‘s piano created endless and enduring shafts of illumination and whole ambiences of warmth. I thought the understating of it all was ultimately the most powerful and moving aspect of the work and its performance.

It was appropriate, I felt, that the sounds we heard next were those of a single instrument, marked by the appearance of Jennifer Stumm, the illustrious violist here accorded a warm welcome.I had not heard these pieces by Hungarian composer György Kurtág previously  – all three come from a sequence of 24 such pieces for solo viola, “Signs, Games and Messages”, and represent a compositional form and  method characteristic of the composer. His music has been described as “reducing his material to the level of the fragment, or the moment….”, with the individual pieces in this collection ranging in length from three or four minutes to mere handfuls of seconds.

The first piece sounded folksy, a recitative-like piece whose near-claustrophobic “seconds” were piquantly resolved, Stumm producing an amazingly rich and “earthy” sound. The second sounded like a wailing, weeping lament, very “Jewish-sounding” in character, creating the extraordinary effect of a stringed instrument actually “sounding” like a human voice, the notes having a curiously “over-the-top” vibrato, suggesting raw emotion! – Lastly was a kind of dance (the composer inspired, Stumm told us, by an English girl), with both timbres and colours of the sounds changing constantly and the rhythms varying from measure to measure.

Stumm then demonstrated her art in partnership with pianist Jian Liu, beginning with Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures), written in 1851. The composer described them as “childish pranks” to the work’s first performer of the viola part (they were written for either violin or viola, Schumann preferring the latter), and he didn’t specify any sources for his inspiration, leaving performers and listeners alike to “create” their own scenarios.  The violist introduced each of the pieces most charmingly, the first having a gentle, flowing opening with both instruments in perfect accord and dove-tailing the melodic lines most exquisitely, Stumm’s wonderful elasticity of tone enabling her to”load” the expression of every bar with variation and flexible nuance.

The march which followed featured viola fanfares at its beginning, the figures turning to song as the music developed, Jian Liu’s nimble playing seeming to entice the viola from the path and into the woods, the sounds playing canonic games amongst the trees, until the wistful strains of the opening theme call the instruments back to their more heroic initial purpose. A dark urgency gripped the music of the third piece, the figurations agitated, viola and piano nimbly alternating the triplet rhythms, before allowing the appearance of a contrasting, more languishing and nostalgic sequence which seemed to yearn for somebody’s return. The music returns abruptly to the insistence of the triplets until what sounded like a cry of despair from the viola brought the piece to an abrupt conclusion.

The final movement’s  “Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck” (Slowly and with a melancholy expression) sounded like a love song, Stumm’s viola with the melody and Liu’s piano soaring overhead protectively, so “intertwined” a feeling (obviously a “Clara-inspired” sequence! – Clara, of course, being Schumann’s wife), so wholly a union! The piano took the lead for some moments, intensifying the ardour with triplet figurations, while the viola momentarily took flight, before the two returned to the opening, and made something characteristically rich and romantic of the ending.

Violist and pianist extended their accord with the audience via an unusual composition, a Scherzo movement written by Johannes Brahms for a piece called the F.A.E. Sonata, a collaborative piece by three composers – besides Brahms, there was Schumann and Albert Dietrich, who was one of Schumann’s pupils. The work was intended as a gift for the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had met in Hanover earlier in the year, and who had introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann – the F.A.E. of the title stood for a phrase that Joachim had taken for a motto – “Frei aber einsam” (Free but alone). All three composers completed their work and Joachim gratefully accepted the gift and played the work! Just before his death, in 1906, he allowed Brahms’ Scherzo to be published. (I’ve not been able to find out whose transcription for viola Jennifer Stumm used).

Never before have I been so aware of Beethoven’s influence on the younger composer in this movement, as in this performance, right from the four-note motive reminiscent of “you-know-what” at the start! Using the viola, Stumm seemed to get the best of two worlds, the extra weight and gravitas of the lower instrument combining with the rich lyrical warmth of her playing of the second theme. And she can “take on” silvery violin-like tones whenever she chooses, it seems, the instruments highest notes having a glistening quality not normally associated with a viola. As for the playing of Jian Liu, her keyboard partner, it scintillated during the vigorous passages and captured the romantic glow of the piano writing in the work’s poetic central section.

Remaining was the evening’s grandest utterance, Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet Op. 60, a work conveniently ignored, it seems to me, by those people who aligned themselves with the musical conservatives of that time, people filled with self-righteous horror at the idea, espoused by Liszt and Wagner, that music was actually “about” something – the doyen of conservative critics Eduard Hanslick led the charge, laying about him with a will at the “progressives” who dared to attach ideas or even “programmes” to the music they wrote. Yet the “darling” of the conservatives, Johannes Brahms, the “upholder of classical traditions and ideals” here produced a work which he himself aligned with a “programme”, going as far as suggesting to his publisher that he print the work accompanied by certain images which would further convey the music’s “meaning”! The silence from the conservatives was deafening!

Brahms, of course was known in his later years for his mordant wit, especially regarding his own music – calling his massive B-flat Piano Concerto “my little concerto with a teeny wisp of a scherzo”, for instance – but in the case of aligning his Op. 60 Piano Quintet with a set of images and a programme, there’s nothing to suggest that he wasn’t serious. Of course, in any such conflict the contradictions abound – and today most music-lovers have little difficulty with appreciation and enjoyment of works from both sides of the historic “divide”!

Stumm and Te Koki Trio gave a strong, “interlocked  ensemble” sound to the first movement of the work, the music’s contrasts characterised so very heartwarmingly, with frequent instances of tender, wistful music-making gradually building towards stormier interactions – the coda seemed to collapse, exhausted, at the movement’s end. A call-to-arms from the piano at the Scherzo’s beginning set in play some partly playful, partly trenchant energies, mischief mixed here with desperation – a rollicking ride with plenty of “glint”.

Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello sang its cantilena-like opening  of the slow movement with much poetry, matched by Martin Riseley’s violin, the music singing and surging throughout, the solos usually “supported” by lines from one or two others, the piano having its turn with both arco and pizz. accompaniments – I was reminded of Dvorak’s “structuring” of his late chamber work melodies, here, with self-conscious building-blocks here seeming more like living tree-trunks advancing the music’s cause.

But what a finale to follow! – agitated at the outset, with the piano anxious and restless, driving the strings onwards and upwards! – a brief moment of calm, and the music surged forward once again, towards a questioning, almost confused “development” section, here “laid bare” for us by the players, before the music’s “flight” aspect again took hold. The ensemble playing all-encompassing in its desperately energised excitement, until the piano’s majestically-sounded chordal utterances rang out like a hymn of defiance! One’s first reaction was to regret the two sharpish concluding chords at the end as an unnecessary convention, until one remembered the composer’s “head with a pistol to it” illustration-directive to his publisher!

After these exertions, it was fitting that we heard some music from Brahms’ great mentor Schumann, the slow movement from his single Piano Quartet, in a performance that kept on reminding me of Borodin, in its limpid, delicately-voiced way……









An excellent lunchtime concert from university string students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert
Performances by string students of the New Zealand School of Music

Zephyr Wills (viola), Rebecca Warnes (cello), Hayden Nickel (violin), Ellen Murfitt (violin), Emily Paterson (cello), Tamina Beveridge (piano)

Music by Bach, Hindemith, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 8 May, 12:15 pm

Though I had thought not to write a review of this lunchtime concert, but simply to have a pleasant hour listening, I found my mind changing however, a couple of minutes in to the first item: the Allemande from Bach’s fourth Cello Suite, in E flat, played on the viola by Zephyr Wills. Sometimes such transpositions don’t work, but this one did, beautifully. Wills, only a second-year student, has acquired a warm flawless technique on his instrument. The Allemande is a relatively sedate, moderately paced dance and it flourished in his flowing, note-perfect playing. I’m not always happy about other instruments playing music the composer carefully crafted for one in particular. Here, it sounded as if the viola was what Bach really had in mind.

Hindemith’s viola 
More challenging in a sense was the first two movements (Breit and Sehr Frisch und straff) of Hindemith’s sonata for solo viola, Op 25 No 1 (it has five movements). Though opening with an arresting dissonance, it quickly settled into the sort of piece one expects from the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.

The viola was Hindemith’s own instrument and he wrote several sonatas for solo viola as well for viola and piano. I came across a good quote in Gramophone magazine:

“Throughout these works … there is an almost overwhelming competence. The sheer mastery with which he was able to go about making one instrument express the creativity of his extraordinarily fertile mind is quite breathtaking. … There is a strong feeling that it emanates from an era of unrest: the constant moving-on from one idea to another and the rapid harmonic shifts are symptomatic of this. The role of the viola is somewhat solitary.
“Alfred Einstein encapsulated Hindemith’s relationship to his audience thus: ‘’He is unwilling to exploit his feelings publicly and he keeps his two feet on the ground. He merely writes music, the best that he can produce.’ … it is in the four sonatas for solo viola that one is closest to his essence, an essence that is rather bleak and certainly highly cerebral.”

I felt that, for a young student (yet only about four years younger than Hindemith at the time), this sample of the sonata also showed a surprising grasp of the essence of Hindemith.

Saint-Saëns: the whole concerto
The next piece was advertised as the first movement of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A minor (No 1). Rebecca Warnes is a fifth year student at the School of Music (which perhaps means she’s studying for her Masters’, or even a PhD). No high degree of musical discernment was needed to hear a highly accomplished performance from her and her pianist Tamina Beveridge who was a more than adequate orchestra substitute. If it wasn’t for the conspicuously concerto-flavoured cello part, it wouldn’t have been hard to hear it as a cello sonata.  Because I’d forgotten how short the first movement is (about 5 to 6 minutes), I thought the more charming and lyrical second movement was an episode of the first, but realised by the time the third movement began that I was listening to the whole concerto which usually runs a bit over 20 minutes. The excellence of the playing never diminished, and the many virtuosic sections were dealt with, by both players, with undiminished competence and that sense of delight that a mid-30s composer and an early-20s cellist can deliver.

Mendelssohn was still to come (and it was already about 12.50). Hayden Nickel played the first movement of his violin concerto as Tamina Beveridge stayed at the piano. His violin had a bright tone well suited to the spirit of the first movement (this time it was only the first); though it might have exposed both instruments in the more taxing passages. But that accelerating cadenza that leads excitingly into the second movement came off excellently.

And to end, the first movement of Mendelssohn’s last string quartet, Op 80. The players were Haydn Nickel and Zephyr Wills again, plus second violinist Ellen Murfitt and cellist Emily Paterson. They captured the anguished urgency of the Allegro vivace assai (which might as well have been named the ‘appassionata’) music that creates, for me, one of Mendelssohn’s rare, thoughtful, deeply felt utterances.

‘Twas an excellent lunchtime concert!


Polished viola student performances of Bach suites plus some unfamiliar music at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

NZSM Viola Students: Zephyr Wills, Deborah King, Grant Baker; accompanied by Catherine Norton

Music by Schubert, Britten, Bach, Enescu, Kreisler and Walton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 October, 12:15 pm

One rarely goes to a recital by students from Victoria University’s school of music (also known as the New Zealand School of Music and Te Koki), without being surprised to be exposed to interesting, often unfamiliar music played admirably by gifted players.

Zephyr Wills began with the first two movements of Schubert’s sonata for Arpeggione, the odd and short-lived hybrid guitar-cello (D 821). No one today plays the weird instrument for which Schubert was invited to compose (though you’ll find an example on a modern replica on YouTube), and it’s usually played on the cello (I wonder how it sounds on a guitar). So the viola struck me as a very engaging, persuasive choice, bridging the gap between cello and violin in a way that seemed to find the best of both worlds. Though I can’t claim to find it an especially beguiling piece of Schubert, Wills and Catherine Norton exploited its pleasant, melodic character charmingly, especially the second movement, Adagio, which was calm and played with particular sympathy.

He followed with Britten’s Elegy for solo viola, a youthful work, of 1929, when he was only 16, yet it illustrates Britten’s early readiness to explore some of the more radical tendencies of the early 20th century. Elegiac in tone, though the young composer can hardly have had much reason to adopt funereal demeanour. There were eloquent double-stopping dissonances, and evocative use of the mute, as a feeling of grief took hold. It drew attention to a very promising first-year student.

Deborah King played two pieces: the first, the Prelude from Bach’s second cello suite, in D minor. In the minor key, it is mildly sombre; she was careful in the formation of each note, excellent intonation, and the her confident bowing spoke of resilience and strength.

George Enescu is getting more and more exposure these days, and his music, while still with certain Romanian folk elements, sounds to me much more mainstream, of its early decades of the 20th century. This fairly early piece, Konzertstück  – he was 25 – seems to have been composed for the viola; and Deborah King created a pretty persuasive case for it, as it moved between sunny and passing overcast moods; each instrument presented it in perfectly idiomatic fashion. The piano played a distinctive, enquiring part, not a mere accompaniment, and later it seemed to aspire to the character of a concerto. In truth however, I didn’t feel driven  to hear it again.

Grant Baker played the Prelude from Bach’s 4th cello suite, in E flat, one of those that Johannes Moser played on Sunday afternoon in this same venue. Series of variegated arpeggios, drawing attention to the implicit, shifting harmonies. Though his playing’s persuasive praeludial style seemed to call pleadingly for the following allemande movement.

Baker followed with another solo piece, the Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice which Kreisler wrote to play, himself; though it exists in a viola arrangement (not clear whether by Kreisler). The Recitativo creates a tone that seems unusual for Kreisler, with a good deal of mild dissonance through double-stopping and fluttering trills. But the Scherzo-Caprice is in striking contrast, the mood more arresting and optimistic than the emotionally dark Recitativo. Rhythms, intonation and general spirit sounded thoroughly authentic.

Perhaps the most significant music in the concert was the second and third movements, Vivo, con molto preciso and Allegro moderato,  of Walton’s viola concerto. Baker’s performance provided a very persuasive reminder of the stature of the work, distinctively of its period, though not following the style of most English music of the 1920s. So it was lively and interesting; and though the third movement seems to be rather too careful to avoid melody that might stick in the memory (a jotting during the performance remarked that ‘”melodic” might be to stretch the meaning of the word’). However, Baker played the decorative lyrical parts with aplomb, and I was happy to remain listening to the two players as the recital went 15 minutes over time.

It struck me that the Victoria University school of music may be the best place in the country for aspiring viola students, under the dedicated, sympathetic tutelage of New Zealand String Quartet violist, Gillian Ansell.


Engaging and exploratory viola music from NZSM students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts 
New Zealand School of Music viola students, with accompanist Catherine Norton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 13 June, 12:15 pm

This is the time for music students to use the facilities and be exposed to audiences at St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts in preparation for their first semester assessments. For audiences too, there are a couple of benefits; invariably, there are students who surprise, sometimes astonish, with their level of musicianship and technical skill; and there’s the chance to hear some unfamiliar, sometimes very engaging music. Some is chosen to display students’ strengths regardless of the interest of the music for the general, musical public, but there’s always some that is little known and prompts curiosity and thus an impulse to do a little research, to look for recordings in the library or on YouTube.

Zephyr Wills is a first year student who played a Potpourri for viola and piano by Hummel. A few decades ago Hummel’s name meant a pedantic and flashy pianist, a rival of Beethoven in virtuosity who wrote superficially attractive music. A lot of his music has been unearthed including some, yes, attractive and exciting music, a lot for the piano, but also orchestral, chamber and choral music. This piece was very listenable and proved both manageable and at times challenging for a student. It offered music that suited Wills’s flair for easy rhythms and long lyrical lines, employing tunes that were familiar, though not always identifiable. As with each of the pieces played, Catherine Norton, undoubtedly one of the finest accompanists working in New Zealand, supported and enlivened the performances.

Allegro appassionato, by Paul Rougnon, presumably composed as an examination piece at the Paris Conservatoire where he taught, was played by Debbie King, a second year student. Rougnon was a contemporary of Fauré and Massenet (and such disparate composers as Chabrier and Widor too), though I didn’t notice any conspicuous similarities. Not melodically very distinctive, the music had a generally lyrical feel that showed through its shape and textures; it is probably fair to say that its aim seemed mainly to demonstrate students’ technique, which King made tasteful, not showy use of; she played with confidence and musicality.

The Prelude to Bach’s first solo violin suite (BWV 1001), was played in an unattributed scoring for viola, by fourth year student, Charlotte Lamb. The listener is no doubt at a disadvantage attempting to listen objectively to music that is very familiar since so many famous and deeply musical performances lurk in the mind, perhaps to the disadvantage of the present player. It was different, of course, more warm and mellow than on the violin and so less brilliant. Lamb’s playing was accurate and rhythmically coherent but something of Bach had been diminished: this in spite of my secret preferring the tonal range of the viola over that of the violin.

The next piece, When Gravity Fails, in three parts, by Christchurch composer Philip Norman was shared by three players: Grant Baker with Flingamango Tango, Zephyr Wills with Evening Romance and Lauren Jack playing Isla’s Blues. Each section was vividly different and the word ‘quirky’ often comes to mind in characterising Norman’s carefully insubstantial, sometimes ironic or flippant music; but its great virtue is his interest, not shared by a large number of contemporary composers, in entertaining his listeners. In each of the markedly different pieces, the aim was to amuse rather than challenge or to demonstrate a mastery of complex forms or recondite musical vocabulary. The odd smudge or blurred phrase felt like fun, unimportant, and all three seemed to feel at liberty to enjoy the varied emotions or images that invested Norman’s creations.

The most substantial, main-stream work was Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque rhapsodie in which Lauren Jack discovered a depth of feeling that was recognisable to anyone familiar with Bloch’s Schelomo for cello and orchestra, a piece that I discovered in my teens and has had me looking for comparable music by Bloch ever since (there is some). Lauren Jack, another talented first year student, gave it a very thoughtful and enjoyable performance, and I felt it went some way to meet my longings.

The recital ended with two players returning to play pieces that complemented what they’d played before. Debbie King moved from an obscure French composer to an obscure German one. Eduard Pütz was born in 1911 but I can find nothing about his life though he obviously lived through the Nazi years. His Blues for Benni clearly suggested jazz and employed agreeable if somewhat complex jazz rhythms through three distinct phases. King sounded very comfortable in her handling of the idiom and its rather particular demands, though I felt, obviously in my first hearing, that the piece rather outlasted its material.

And Grant Baker ended the recital with a piece by Belgian violinist and composer Vieuxtemps (a contemporary of Franck, Lalo and Gounod, even Offenbach, if that’s in any way relevant), best known for his violin concertos. This Elégie for viola and piano was melodically attractive and Baker gave it an excellent account with lyrical playing, tinged with a gentle pathos. It called for a good deal of embellishment from both viola and Catherine Norton’s unfailingly sensitive and supportive piano, which the pair handled with flair.

Diverting Debussy-inspired trio charm a responsive audience at Lower Hutt

Toru Trio: Karen Batten (flute), Sophia Acheson (viola), Ingrid Bauer (harp)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Debussy: Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915)
Bax: Fantasy Sonata (viola and harp, 1927)
Tabea Squire: Impressions (2018)
Wendelin Bitzan: Zoologischer Garten for flute and viola (2011)
William Mathias: Zodiac Trio (1976)

Lower Hut Little Theatre

Wednesday 16 May, 7:30 pm

Te reo Maori for the numeral 3 is toru; thus ‘Toru Trio’ is a redundancy. This instrumental trio comprises harp, viola and flute, modelled on Debussy’s war-time piece; all are players in Orchestra Wellington. All the pieces were composed in the last 100 years (though the Debussy himself was a couple of years outside that frame).

Their arrival on stage made a striking impression: Karen Batten in a dramatic gold dress, Ingrid Bauer a dress of more coppery gold, and Sophia Acheson wore a near luminous, black dress. And while the Little Theatre is an intimate space with a dry acoustic that leaves performances quite exposed, a distinct compensation is the players closeness. That means the audience could be diverted by three attractive, personable and versatile musicians who use their instruments to produce often unfamiliar sounds and visual experiences; in particular, the harpist’s manipulations of hands and feet on her formidable instrument were always intriguing.

Three of the five pieces engaged all three players while the Bax and Bitzen were scored for only two of them. The way the cards fell resulted in the omnipresence of Sophia Acheson’s viola in all five works.

The concert presented several unusual aspects: the uncommon instrumental combination, that only one piece was by a composer whose name would have been familiar to all the audience, that the trio had invited a young New Zealand composer to compose a piece for them, and that they were in the middle of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour to eight smaller towns and cities from Warkworth via Gisborne, Motueka, etc to Gore in the south.

Debussy creates a new musical form
Debussy started it all. At the beginning of the First World War, Debussy decided to write six sonatas, for different combinations of instruments referencing eighteenth century French musical traditions. Just as Ravel had done with his Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy wanted to make a patriotic French gesture in support of French soldiers facing the horrors of the war. He wrote only three of the six – for cello and piano, this one, and one for violin and piano: he died too soon. The other three were planned: Debussy had written in the manuscript of his violin sonata that the fourth sonata should be written for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano, and the sixth for all the preceding instrument plus others.

For the sixth and final sonata, Debussy envisaged: “a concerto where the sonorites of the ‘various instruments’ combine, with the gracious assistance of the double bass”, making the instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, piano, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, double bass; it would have been a masterpiece. Debussy’s three non-existent works would, like this trio, have inspired scores of works for those new combinations.

In some ways it’s a risky business to combine three such disparate instruments, and to play in such an exposed acoustic as the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, poses an even greater challenge; it’s one thing to be able to hear with such clarity the distinct sounds of each instrument, but it’s something else to deal with the challenge of achieving real blending; and that might be a minor criticism of their playing. Debussy makes a feature of their utterly different sounds by asking each player to introduce her part in its characteristic way, exploiting quite interestingly the differences in compass and tone.

It creates striking effects, viola and flute pursuing very different ranges; early on the harp plays very high while the viola plays repeatedly a very low note. The sonorities are most curious at times; we are not very used, for example, to the viola playing alone over such long passages. The programme note usefully described each theme and their instrumental treatment, and drew attention to their repetition in a different order.

The minuet second movement, primarily in triple, minuet time imperceptibly changes to common time, at times misleading the listener, while the Finale returns to 4/4, and employ the harp at the start in a low register, rather murmuring. For the most part the playing was so sensitive and each player clearly paid such attention to what others were doing that the music began to sound inevitable. While I am familiar enough with it, I remember many years ago finding it elusive and tonally rather disparate. It’s one of those pieces – many of Debussy’s are – that slowly, deeply takes root, more in the instinctive mind than the intellect.

A Bax Fantasy
The Bax piece, for viola and harp, called a Fantasy Sonata, which had become a fashion after English musicologist and a notable compiler of a great encyclopaedia of chamber music, W W Cobbett (it’s near my desk), established a competition that seeking to revive the 16th century English musical form. Numbers of works were produced (Armstrong Gibbs, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Britten).

Bax’s was perhaps more straight-forward melodically than Debussy’s trio; I didn’t know it, but it’s an attractive piece, and presenting less of an instrumental challenge. And again the players revealed a happy rapport handling dynamics sympathetically, idiomatically.

Tabea Squire is a young Wellington composer whose composing gifts have led to several commissions. This piece, for all three instruments, was not on a large scale and the task was to simulate sounds in nature: the contrasting colours of the kowhai, the image of children dancing in the rain, and a fantail fluttering among trees in the sunlight. While this kind of inspiration for music generally usually doesn’t seem very fruitful (to me); in fact I think it’s more likely to succeed as music without visual or literary or some intellectual construct. Its variety and the handling of parts for each instrument, individually or in ensemble, and the evidence of plain musical invention are enough.

Flute and viola then played a piece by a young (at my age, ‘young’ seems to refer more and more to anyone under 40) German composer, Wendelin Bitzan. This time, zoo animals in curious situations, but stimulating the composer to devise often amusing sonic imagery. Occasionally, the sounds were evocative enough, not to create pictures of the creatures named, but to be engaging nevertheless; moments that were amusing, even bizarre, both in concept and actualisation.

Astrology in music
Then a third piece that had an extra-musical origin: William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio which again presented a scenario that seemed to demand a lot from the imagination, if one sought useful characterisations from Mathias’s impressions of that nature of Pisces, Aries and Taurus. One of the players (I think, violist Sophia Acheson) claimed a Zodiac association with one of the three signs employed by Mathias; I can claim none, so I was able to listen without prejudice to the musical interpretations of these forces.

These three pieces might have been obscure astrologically, but as I wrote above, that was irrelevant; they were attractive musical creations, sometimes beguiling, occasionally droll and often musically inventive. Taurus did indeed suggest the force, energy and danger of a loose bull, as there were moments where these very disparate instruments truly came together in an integrated way.

Debussy’s trio has given rise to an impressive body of musical descendants and to as many threesomes devoted to their performance (look in Wikipedia). There is a rich and every-so-often very rewarding field for Toru to cultivate.

Given that this Hutt Valley concert was Toru’s only appearance in the Wellington region in the course of an eight-concert tour, its excellence deserved a bigger audience.

A somewhat impromptu lunchtime recital proves a delight at St Andrew’s

Fleur Jackson (violin), Olivia Wilding (cello), Lucy Liu (viola), Ingrid Schoenfeld and Catherine Norton (piano)

Beethoven: Piano sonata in C minor, Op 30/2, movements I and 3
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 129 – arranged for cello and piano, movements 2 and 3
Bloch: Suite (1919) for viola and piano, movements 2, 3, 4

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 November, 12:15 pm

Having left the reviewing duty unplanned, both Lindis Taylor and I found ourselves at this recital, mutually unaware of each other at the time; we decided to combine our impressions. Prizes (a free annual pass for the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts in 2018) for successful identification of the origin of the various remarks.

This programme was arranged at short notice after the originally scheduled players withdrew. Three separate duos, it proved very engaging, even though each pair played only some of the three or more movements. In principle, one should regret that such truncations are made, as they distort in some way the composer’s original intention. In the circumstances however, and given how well each piece was played, it was an interesting and musically satisfying recital.

The first performers began Beethoven’s none-too-easy Allegro con brio first movement with excellent attack, beautifully integrated. The lively staccato character of the music seemed to belie its minor key; Ingrid Schoenfeld’s lively, ear-catching piano and the bright, buoyant sound of Fleur Jackson’s violin, spiced with well-placed emphases not only characterised the first movement, but continued without the calming Adagio cantabile of the second, to the third movement, Scherzo, which persisted in the spirit of the first, in a dancing spirit, full of optimism.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto doesn’t quite rank alongside those of Dvořák, or Elgar, even of Saint-Saëns or Haydn; but it’s a charming work. Being less familiar, there was not the same feeling of something major left out, in spite of the fact that there is no break between the three movements and in the way they simply merge, one into the next, lends the whole work a particular integrity. To start with the Langsam, second movement, worked very well, and the elimination of the orchestra didn’t seem at all barbaric.

Olivia Wilding and Catherine Norton were finely paired in the expressive opening; the cello has much double stopping while Norton’s piano was a model of subtlety and sensitivity; resulting in a very convincing feeling that Schumann might actually have written it as a sort of cello sonata. One can miss the scale and colour of an orchestra in such a reduction, but the music spoke for itself, uninhibitedly.

The success of the seamless transition from the second to the last movement might profitably have been a model for later concertos, except that it removes some of the crowd-pleasing drama from the conventional concerto structure. The challenges of the Sehr lebhaft finale did not daunt Olivia Wilding, brilliantly executing the lightning shifts from deep bass to high notes. It was a scintillating performance.

Ernest Bloch can often seem a very serious composer, but in the three movements of his Suite (in four movements) for viola and piano, he imagined the islands of Indonesia, which he never visited. They were full of interest, of light and shade. Lucy Liu and Catherine Norton began with the second movement, Allegro ironico, subtitled ‘Grotesques’. The enchanting opening phrases from both viola and piano might have been animals padding through the jungle.

The Lento third movement (‘Nocturne’), a pensive piece, revealed gorgeously rich tone from the muted viola, while it was rewarding to pay attention to the piano part that Norton handled with great sensitivity. The last movement, Molto vivo (‘Land of the Sun’), included some sequences influenced by Chinese music. Strong, confident playing left a Debussyesque feeling and the sense that the suite probably deserved a more prominent place in the viola repertoire. Both players were absolutely on top of the music, technically and interpretively.

It might have been a somewhat impromptu concert but between them the five players delivered an interesting, thoroughly enjoyable concert of works that one might dare call great.

Viola Students from the New Zealand School of Music with diverting sampler of well-played pieces

Viola pieces by Bach, Hoffmeister, Hindemith, Anthony Ritchie, Schumann and Rebecca Clarke

Violists: Debbie King, Georgia Steel, Grant Baker
Pianists: Catherine Norton, Matt Owen

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 October, 12:15 pm

Three violists and two pianists put this lunchtime programme together. Such student presentations always reveal music that one has never come across before, and the discoveries here – not the composers’ names, which one had a casual knowledge of – were of the pieces of music. A viola concerto by Anton Hoffmeister, a contemporary of Mozart, a character piece by Schumann, viola sonatas by Anthony Ritchie, Hindemith and Rebecca Clarke (all of which one should probably have known; none was played at the recent International Viola Congress in Wellington).

But it began with the Bach’s third cello suite, in C. Although one has become somewhat accustomed to other instruments purloining these great suites, the original version seems to become ever more deeply embedded in one’s consciousness, with the result that the cello’s nearest relative sounded – to me – just a little inauthentic. The intonation was good, but perhaps a certain lack of flexible articulation and bowing that was not quite as flawless as it might have been, detracted slightly. Debbie King chose the three fastest movements and managed pretty well, though the pair of Bourrées were more relaxed than the Gigue which might have been more engaging at a slower pace.

Georgia Steel, with Catherine Norton, chose to play the second and third movements from Franz Anton Hoffmeister viola concerto in D (another, in B flat also appears in the archive). A plaintive Adagio, with ornaments still in need of a bit more refinement, and the Rondo finale which was certainly of the Mozart generation without the beguiling charm and inspiration. However, the pair had absorbed the genuine idiom and made one conscious of a composer well worth watching out for.

Perhaps the most formidable of the pieces was Hindemith’s solo sonata, Op 25 No 1, of which Grant Baker played movements I, II and IV. The first, labelled Breit, ‘Broadly’, is unrelentingly severe, though it becomes more varied after a couple of minutes, evidently running without a pause into the second movement, ‘Very lively and strict’. It’s the fourth movement that is the show-piece, translated: ‘Furiously fast. Wild. Tonal beauty is secondary’; and Grant Baker did well.

Anthony Ritchie’s steadily growing corpus has become very imposing with music for a very wide range of instruments, genres and purposes. Here was Debbie King again, with pianist (I assume, Matt Oliver, though neither violist nor pianist was named). The piece was the Allegro tempestuoso (first movement) from the ‘Viola Concerto’, though the note explained that we were to hear Ritchie’s rewrite of the original concerto as a sonata for viola and piano. Ritchie’s music is always both interesting and approachable, as well as idiomatically composed to suit the intended performers. Debbie clearly found the music congenial as well as being in tune with the piano part; and the listener too found this a very engaging piece which strongly invited one to hear the other three movements.

Next came another first movement – ‘Nicht schnell’, from Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Op 113). Schumann didn’t invite the listener to try to conjure specific images to his fairytale pictures and nothing presented itself to my imagination. But Georgia Steel and Catherine Norton, again, fell easily into the spirit of these pieces written late in Schumann’s life when mental disabilities were starting to emerge. The brilliant inspiration of the pre-1840 piano works was gone gone.

Finally Grant Baker, with Catherine Norton played part of the viola sonata by British composer/violist Rebecca Clarke. I’d heard its first two movements at a St Andrew’s lunchtime concert back in 2010. Now we heard the third movement (Adagio – Allegro). It’s an attractive work, very much of its era, though not under the influence of atonality or undue abrasiveness. The piano part is as interesting as the viola’s, and Norton played with all her usual finesse and intuition. And the viola writing was far from routine; opening with a longish Adagio that subtly becomes more spirited and inventive.

As well as being an always rewarding impression of the nature of today’s student talent, this was a very interesting glimpse of the wide variety of diverting music for the viola.