Wellington vocal trio delights its Whanganui audience with a “charmer” of a programme…..

Wanganui Music Society presents:
A Concert of Part-Songs
Lesley Graham (soprano),  Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano), Roger Wilson (baritone)
Phillipa Safey (piano)

St.Paul’s Hall, Cooks St., Whanganui

Sunday 8th November 2020

This delightful concert was the second of three concerts I was scheduled to attend and review over three consecutive days – and now, looking back at the three events while writing the notices for this second one , I’m suddenly reminded of Franz Liszt’s description of the Allegretto movement in the middle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, commonly nicknamed the “Moonlight” Sonata. Liszt called the movement “a flower between two abysses”, which is something of how I feel about this particular concert in relation to the other two on either side of it. It was, in fact an absolute joy to attend, as far as I could discern, giving pleasure to all, participants, organisers and audience alike.

It’s not that the other two concerts weren’t enjoyable in their different ways, with each of them achieving great things in providing their respective audiences with plenty of excitement and deep satisfaction. But this one’s pleasures were singular in that there was a beguiling ease, a sunniness of disposition, a joyful relaxation in the music-making which reflected the programme’s delight in simple pleasures of life and love. True, the programme’s second half charted more varied emotional territory, with the four Mozart Nocturnes for vocal trio dwelling on love’s pangs as much as its bliss – and the real “elephant in the room” which somewhat counters the effusive tone of my warblings above, was Carl Loewe’s setting of the grisly Scottish ballad “Edward” – here, put across by Roger Wilson and Phillipa Safey with plenty of menace, growing horror and blood-curdling relish, the singer’s Caledonian inflexions convincingly adding to the impact of the performance!

The concert was performed in a lovely space, a hall adjoining the magnificent St.Paul’s/St.Mark’s Church in Cooks St. – the hall afforded a clear and responsive acoustic, enabling listeners to enjoy the finely-modulated balances between the three voices themselves and with the piano. Even sitting at the back of the four-fifths-filled hall, I could clearly hear each of the contributions of the individual singers, with the piano a judiciously-balanced partner.

These balances were immediately apparent in the concert’s opening number, a deliciously presented ”Dashing away with the smoothing iron”, the first of the half’s exploration of English, Irish and Scottish part-song settings – I don’t propose to comment on each individual item, but this one’s performance encapsulated all the virtues of the concert’s first half – the overall lightness of touch from all concerned being the framework of strength that allowed full play to the constantly-shifting impulses of emphasis, light and colour along the way of the song, the freedom and spontaneity of it all totally beguiling! “My gentle Harp” was another to impress, with beautifully stratospheric opening work from soprano Lesley Graham and gently-undulating support from the others.

Teamwork was winningly apparent in “Tis the last rose of summer”, with lovely ensembled singing, the restraint from all adding to the glow of nostalgia, reinforced by the piano’s murmuring tones to gorgeous effect. But not only the gentler, more poetic songs came off well – things like the jolly, rollicking “The De’il’s awa’ wi’ the’ Exciseman”, and the “Scottish snap” evident in “The Dance” were given full rein, both tonally and rhythmically, with the enjoyment of it all readily conveyed to the audience. The defiant “strut” of “The Dance” splendidly energised the music, with Roger Wilson’s “hummed” lines adding a rustic touch to the textures, like a “ground bass”.  Finally, Beethoven’s arrangement of “Charlie is my darling” brought the half to a good-humoured close, the performance replete with rhythmic and dynamic detailings which brought it all to pulsating life.

I hadn’t ever encountered the three Shakespeare duet settings that began the second half, the first (“Ye Spotted Snakes” by Frederick Keel) again featuring some beautifully-negotiated “snow-capped” vocal work from Lesley Graham, supported most ably by mezzo Linden Loader, with the concluding reiterations of “lullaby” from the two so very dream-like and ethereal. In the first of Vaughan Williams’ two settings (“It was a lover and his lass”) the composer’s gentle major/minor alternations expressed something so elusively English about the sounds, while the third (“Fear no more the heat o’ sun” from “Cymbeline”) gave each singer solo lines before the concluding “Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust” beguilingly blended the two voices. This was something of a “find” for me for which I was so grateful, both music-and performance-wise.

I’ve already waxed lyrical regarding Roger Wilson’s splendidly evocative and theatrical performance of Loewe’s setting of the gruesome “Edward”. In order to minimise the possibility of nightmare-ridden sleep that night for hapless audience members after being exposed to such ghastly happenings, the musicians finished the afternoon’s concert with some rather more ingratiating sounds which those more susceptible to such things might well have put to good use to “paper over the horrors”!  For whatever reason, we all welcomed this set of four Mozart “Nocturnes”, again all new to me, and perhaps all the more delightful for it!

I loved the comment in the programme notes regarding the texts of these songs – “The rather stylised Italian poems, possibly by Metastasio were translated into equally inconsequential German” – (Pietro Metastasio 1698-1782 was the most famous opera librettist of his time but whose formulaic style of writing soon became out-dated). Mozart’s music transcended the somewhat high-flown, idealised sentiments of the verses, inspiring the quartet of musicians to give finely-honed, exquisitely gradated performances, my notes while listening replicating phrases like “beautifully balanced”, “perfectly focused”, “finely poised” and “deliciously turned” – altogether, a most mellifluous ending to a satisfying and entertaining programme.

Baroque Voices’ “Bingen to Becker” a harmonious celebration

Baroque Voices presents:
BINGEN TO BECKER (Vocal music from the 12th to the 21st Century)

A Concert of Music by Hildegard von Bingen, Morley, Dowland, Hume, Monteverdi, Poulenc, Durufle, Pepe Becker, Jack Body, Constantini, Handel, Annea Lockwood, and Anon/Trad…..

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Anna Sedcole, Jane McKinlay, Rowena Simpson, Andrea Cochrane, Katherine Hodge (with Robert Oliver – bass viol)

The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste, Arthur St., Te Aro, Wellington

Sunday 16th August, 2020

Thanks to a newly-emerged Covid-19 chapter in Auckland we were a precautionary “restricted” audience for this concert, but of good cheer, nevertheless, with convivial company and food and drink available at the venue, the evocatively-named “The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste”, from out of which scenario “emerged” the musicians, informally dressed and congregating at the platform end of the listening-space, six singers and a bass violist, all as relaxed as if spontaneously inspired to entertain the company! By way of settling both the ensemble and its audience in, we were treated straightaway to the programme’s first two items, the first something of a “Pepe Becker Special”, Hildegard of Bingen’s O ignis spiritus, the soprano having made Hildegard’s resonant, ecstatic vocal lines music very much her own of late in these parts, and deservedly so – this was followed by an anonymous 14th-Century 3-part Canon “O Virgo Splendens” whose catchy dance-rhythms combined sacred worship and secular energy in a wholly delightful way, the ensemble’s six voices imitating a flowing river of streamlets intertwining and separating within the irresistible flow of the whole.

The introduction having “cleared” all throat and nasal (singers) and auricular (listeners) passages, Becker officially welcomed us to the concert, intended as a 25th Birthday affair for the ensemble, but “extended” to being closer to a 26th  celebration by dint of the aforementioned worldwide events exerting their influence to within Aotearoa’s shores. She talked about the concert’s themes, the items prominently figuring both love and death, and suggesting that, with humanity still in the grip of an on-going ailment, the music was expressing something of where we all were at present. Thomas Morley’s Arise, get up, my dear appropriately “revitalised” the programme from this point onwards, the singing confidently resounding through the range of tones from the altos’ beginning phrases to the silvery utterances of the sopranos at the top. “Semper Dowland semper dolens” went the name of one of the composer’s songs, and came to characterize Dowland’s oeuvre in the public’s mind – and Can she excuse my wrongs? proved no exception to this mood, Pepe Becker’s plaintive tones given a sure trajectory by Robert Oliver’s nimble accompaniments.  The changes were further rung by Oliver’s sure-fingered solo rendition of Tobias Hume’s A Pavin, featuring some extremely deft double-stopping enlivening the second part of the dance’s ritual of elegant sobriety!

Again Dowland figured with a characteristically-titled song Flow my tears, the Becker/Oliver combination suitably sombre in effect, the soprano doing well in a vocal range I wouldn’t have associated with her natural gifts, achieving dignity and clarity – the second half of the song brought forth a degree of liberation into the light, with phrases such as “Hark! – you shadows!” ringing out clearly. What a difference in every way was wrought by Monteverdi’s Madrigal Come dolce hoggi (How sweet is the breeze!) from the composer’s Book 9, the singers’ tones appropriately bright and outdoors-ish at the beginning, the vocal expression thrown widely and exploringly, the vocal ornamentations strengthening on repetition as the voices accustomed themselves to each frisson of energy, the piece’s ending expansive and resonantly lingering in the silences – lovely! The unaccompanied Poulenc Ave Verum Corpus bore an attractive, melancholy colour,  the “open” harmonies occasionally adding a medieval-sounding touch – and while the Durufle piece Tota pulchra es shared some features with the Poulenc, a pleasing melancholy, and “older” touches of harmony, the piece had a livelier, more insistent and declamatory texture, kept airborne by a lovely rocking rhythm, here beautifully regulated by the singers.

To finish the half, Becker introduced her Taurus 1: Night and Morning, a setting of Robert Browning’s pair of poems “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”, wryly mentioning to us the piece was now twenty years old (an “excesses of youth” commentary, perhaps?)  – the singers’ mingling of exhalations of breath, charged utterances and harmonic tensions, with the darkness lit by occasionally soprano soarings, all established the “romantic tryst” mood, the brief (and presumably heartbreaking) epilogue of the morning’s parting encapsulating the experience as a recalled moment in time.

On to the concert’s second half, then it was, beginning with two “Nowel/Nowell” settings (though unseasonal, it hardly matters, as each Christmas comes so quickly on the heels of another in any case, these days!) – both lively, “ringing” kinds of evocations in their different ways, the first revolving the joyous message in an infectious “back-and-forth” way, with acclamation-like cries at the end. Jack Body’s “Lithuanian manner” Nowell began with characteristically crunchy harmonies exchanged by two pairs of singers facing one another, something Mussorgsky (of “Pictures from and Exhibition” fame) would have, I think, relished, in memory of his similarly sequenced dialogues between voices in “The Market Place at Limoges” – here, the singers  built on the earthy figurations’ growing excitement and accumulations of joy and certainty as the exchanges reached a plateau of exhilaration, humanity enlivened by tidings from on high!

Alessandro Constantini’s Confitemini Domino continued the festive mood, resounding with joyous and angelic utterances, Oliver’s accompaniments reinforcing the Alleluia’s dancing rhythms with gusto. A remarkable and contradictory precursor of a similar mood evoked by the great Handel was the following duet No, di voi no vo’fidarmi, here sung superbly by Becker and Rowena Simpson, with Oliver’s assured bass viol accompaniment,  the familiar lines of “For unto us a Child in Born” from Messiah  used in the service of a completely different text, one of accusation and dismissal of love – Handel had written this (and another duet Quel fior che all’alba ride similarly re-used) a matter of weeks before beginning work on Messiah, and duly incorporating the music into the larger work! – what a delight to encounter the “original” version of such well-known music, and to hear such a committed and assured performance!

Gentler, with longer-breathed lines, and tensions of a different kind brought into play was another work by Handel, Amor, gioie mi porge, a somewhat calmer portrayal of the hardships of love, one which gathered weight and darkness as it proceeded, taking in a central, more energetic section allowing the sopranos to soar, but returning to beseechment and despair at the end, the two singers, Anna Sedcole and Becker sustaining their lines throughout with great spirit! The prospect of hearing any of Annea Lockwood’s music always excites interest, though I was disarmed by the simplicity of her 1983 work Malolo, (Rest), a Samoan lullaby using hypnotically repeating sounds, the singers “terracing” their utterances to enable all kinds of echoes and resonances, the lower voices finishing the piece as hauntingly as  it began.

Three traditionally Irish folk-song settings arranged by Pepe Becker were filled with drollery, melancholy and gentle wit, my favourite being “The Galbally Farmer”, with its rhythmic “snap”, earthy, drone-like accompaniment, and wryly-sounding vocal reinforcements of some of the text’s phrases, concluding with the tried-and-true existentialist lament “I wish I had never seen Galbally Town!”. Becker’s compositional skills were again evoked by When will we know?, a gentle balled-like setting whose closely-worked harmonies had a cool, even bluesy colouring from the viol’s plucked-string accompaniments and wind-blown vocal abandonments at the song’s end. We thought at first the evening’s music would finish by circling back to its opening, with another of Hildegard’s hymns, O viridissima Virga – this one a long-breathed unison for all the voices, ambiently accompanied by Becker’s shruti box and Oliver’s viol, the whole a kind of ritualized “bringing together” of elements presented in a flexible, organic, very human manner, the voices not perfectly together, but in expressive purpose acting as one – to our surprise and delight, we were treated to a brief encore, which deserves its own paragraph……

Once attributed to Henry Purcell, How Great is the Pleasure – Canon for Three Voices was actually written by Dr. Henry Harington (1727-1816) an English physician, composer and author, and was published around 1780 with the title Love and Music – a Favourite Catch for Three Voices. Beginning in unison, with accompaniment from the viol, the melody soared like a Shaker Hymn, then divided among three parts, finishing with words that could have described the evening’s music-making – “When harmony, sweet harmony, and love do unite!” Most satisfying!…….




Diversity and enthusiasm from Gale Force voices at Futuna

Colours of Futuna presents:
Gale Force Gospel Choir  (Small Ensembles)

The Yorkett Quartet – Carol Lough, Gunilla Jensen, Neil Pryor, Gina Coyle
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie  (H Ledbetter, arr. Max Maxwell)
When I get Inside / Our Father  Trad gospel, arr. Tony Backhouse
Going Down to Jordan (Trad, arr. Soweto Gospel Choir)

Gracenotes Quintet – Juli Usmar, Leigh Talamaivao, Fiona Walker                                                                       Richard Hale, Shelly Andrews
There is a Balm in Gilead (W Dawson, arr. Tony Backhouse)
Gotta do Right (Trad, after a version by the Heritage Singers)

Peter & Anne (Williams)
I Had a Real Good Mother & Father / By the Mark
(Trad, after Gillian Welch)

Vocalicious – Shona McNeil, Rachel MacLeod, Shelly Andrews
Halleluyah (Leonard Cohen, arr Shona McNeil)
Go to Sleep Little Baby (Harris/Kraus/Welch arr Vocalicious)

Indonesian Quartet – Mark Standeven, Carol Shortis,
Anne Manchester, Bill Shortis
Betapa Baiknya (Freddy Ahuluheluw arrr. Carol Shortis)

Triceratops Trio – Ben Woods, Laura Durville, Amber Coyle
Beams of Heaven (Charles A.Tindley, arr. Laura Durville)
Wanting Memory (Ysaye M. Barnwell, after Cantus)

Rise Up Trio – Gina & Jim Coyle
Cross Over to the Other Side of Jordan (from James & Martha Carson)

Pieces of Eight Octet – Liz King, Leigh Talamaivao, Bill Shortis, Gracie McGregor, Angela Torr, Ian Brewer, Andrew Thompson-David, Laura Durville
One Mornin’ Soon (arr. Tony Backhouse, after Johnita and Joyce Collins)
All Night, All Day (arr. Tony Backhouse, after The Caravans)

Futuna Chapel

 Sunday 9th November 2014

Right from the word go this short concert had the feeling of a community event, rather than a formal recital, and I’m sure that’s how the organisers wanted it. Gale Force Gospel choir is a diverse bunch of singers from many different backgrounds, who obviously enjoy the idioms of Negro Spirituals, both the singing and the swinging. They put together a varied programme of small ensemble pieces, incorporating both traditional numbers handed down from the original slaves, and subsequent compositions in similar vein.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, and it captured the full-house audience from first to last. It carried the singers through the odd loss of memory, and the not infrequent dodgy intonation of their a cappella style, but nobody seemed to mind – everyone was clearly having a ball, both singers and listeners.

The Yorkett Quartet was the most polished of the groups, and their opening bracket of traditional numbers was beautifully controlled in phrasing, intonation and ensemble, with exemplary clear diction. This is not easy to achieve in the lively acoustic of Futuna Chapel, but they judged their dynamics most effectively to suit.

The Gracenotes Quintet followed with a sensitive rendering of Balm in Gilead, then a complete switch in mood to the swinging rhythms and clapping beat of Gotta Do Right that was particularly popular.

The Vocalicious group’s Go to Sleep Little Baby was likewise acted out with rhythmic and rocking motions that brought their gentle lullaby very warmly to life.

The Rise Up Trio enacted the story of the Jews’ escape from captivity in Egypt very graphically with their swinging number Cross Over to the Other Side of Jordan despite some highly variable intonation. They invited the audience to join in the choruses, which was done with considerable enthusiasm.

This left the final bracket to the largest ensemble, the Pieces of Eight Octet, who closed the concert with two numbers full of the immediacy of angels. One Mornin’ Soon was propelled along by lively vocal “percussion” from the basses, and the vivid imagery of angels surrounding an ecstatic supplicant kneeling at prayer.

By contrast, All Night, All Day was a gentle, rocking number that rounded off the programme by committing the singers to the loving care of their guardian angels as sleep took over. It was an apposite finish to a well balanced and highly popular concert that epitomised community music making in the very best tradition.


The Fab Five explore neglected vocal territory at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

The Fab Five vocal quartet (Lesley Graham, Linden Loader, Richard Greager, Roger Wilson and William McElwee) and pianist Mark Dorrell

Beethoven’s Fidelio: ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’
Haydn: Die Harmonie in der Ehe; Die Warnung; Der Greis
Brahms: An die Heimat; Der Abend; Fragen, Op 64
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: ‘Selig wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht…’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 25 September, 12:15 pm

When you Google many 19th century composers and look at the list of their works, the casual browser is likely to be surprised at the number of vocal pieces that are not the usual Lieder or Mélodies or other classes of solo songs: there are collections of part-songs, songs for duet, quartet and other small ensembles, not to mention the cantatas and motets and other choral pieces. It is particularly true of Brahms.

This kind of song seems to be rather neglected today, and they are much less performed in main-stream concerts than are solo songs.

This short concert was a most striking evidence of the rewards that are awaiting the musician who ventures in that direction.

It may or may not have been an added enticement that the two groups of part-songs were book-ended by a couple of famous ensembles from German opera.  Those opening and closing pieces certainly had that effect on me.  Nevertheless, as soon as the jewel-like quartet from Fidelio gave way to the group of Haydn vocal quartets, any doubts about the latter’s charms vanished.

The quartet from Fidelio was a short but moving opening to the recital; ‘Mir is so wunderbar’ is an ensemble in canon in which each, Rocco and Jaquino, Fidelio and Marzelline contemplate their situation and futures. Lesley Graham, as Marzelline, opens in a charmingly tremulous voice followed by Linden Loader as an appropriately youthful Leonore (Fidelio); then Rocco sung by Roger Wilson, for a moment in a tenorial register and, by no means least in the quartet, Richard Greager’s less important role of Jaquino. It was all serenely supported by Mark Dorrell at the piano.

Then Haydn. Die Harmonie in der Ehe at once lifted the spirit, not a moment’s feeling that here were a few things that have been justifiably overlooked over the last century (at least). First, the sparkling, refreshing piano part from Dorrell, and then the whole quartet singing as one, yet with the character of every voice clearly delineated. The sprightly fast quavers never slackened for a moment, and the light-hearted revelling in simple pleasures could not have been better expressed.

The next two took quite different courses: Die Warnung, a semi-serious warning, in a mock, martial vein, against dangers that can emerge from unexpected quarters; and Der Greis (The Old Man), conveying a contented melancholy, reflecting on fading strength and physical attributes, and welcoming the imminence of death, in slow, legato phases, with all four singing in heart-warming balance and lovely ensemble.

The Brahms quartets came from his Op 64, written in the year 1864. In the first song, An die Heimat, the piano at first commanded attention with a rising triadic chords in quaver triplets. The sound of Brahms is always unmistakable, though it is another thing to carry it off with such naturalness and affection. How well they four captured the spirit of rather simple and improbable contentment in the pleasures of home. In the middle, there were beautiful solo episodes from Richard Greager and Linden Loader.

In Der Abend, the piano laid out a ghostly fabric, a triple rhythm sounding the first two beats of the bar, leading briefly to a charming duet between Richard Greager and Roger Wilson, resonant and comfortable, allowing Schiller’s symbolic handling of the approach of welcome death to be conveyed as if they singers really believed it. It’s a rather common subject in German Romanic poetry.

Spirits rose in the final song, Fragen – Questions. It led off in lively triple time, 6/8 I suppose, and soon floated  up to some sort of ecstatic high with the piano contributing to the joyfulness of being in love.

The Meistersinger von Nürnberg quintet arises in the scene of Act III in which Sachs has been helping Walther to shape his Prize Song, also at hand are Eva who will be Walther’s ‘prize’, and Sachs’s apprentice David and his love Magdalene who is Eva’s nurse, or maid.

The coming together represents many facets of human goodness: love, generosity of spirit, self-sacrifice, selfless renunciation of futile hopes, the power of music to elevate behaviour which involves the principal theme of the opera: the reconciliation of tradition with creativity in art. We find all these embodied in Sachs’s own nature and behaviour.

I always find this music too short and so it was here; the use of piano was no handicap, in fact Dorrell’s performance  made if sound as if Wagner had written it primarily for the piano. Here, the fifth voice, David, was provided by current NZSM voice student, tenor William McElwee, making a good impression in the piece where even small parts are to be distinguished.  So there were splendid opportunities for all five to be heard, though it was the Sachs of Wilson, the Walther of Greager and the Eva of Graham who were in the main beams of light. It brought a delightful recital to an all too early end.


The Full Monte – music of love’s distraction, from Baroque Voices


Claudio Monteverdi – Madrigals : Books 3 (complete) and 7 (excerpts)

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker

Pepe Becker, Jayne Tankersley (sopranos) / Andrea Cochrane (alto)

Oliver Sewell, Geoffrey Chang (tenors) / David Morriss (bass)

Continuo: Robert Oliver (bass viol) / Stephen Pickett (theorbo and chitarrino)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Monday, 16th July, 2012

The third instalment of Wellington vocal group Baroque Voices’ stupendous traversal of “The Full Monte”, or the complete Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, drew forth a vein of riches and delights similar in broad-brush stroke terms to the first two concerts. Artistic director Pepe Becker’s idea of combining books of madrigals from different ends of the spectrum of the composer’s output has made for startling contrasts in performance style and emphasis within single concerts.

One would have thought that, as the gap between the two divergent creative periods lessened, there would be more commonality in evidence – but to my ears, the gulf between the composer’s “Prima Practica” (traditional practice) and “Seconda Practica” (innovative practice) seemed throughout this concert as marked as throughout the first two concerts of the series. Of course, the instrumental accompaniments used by the later books (beginning with the Fifth Book of 1605) markedly change the entire sound-picture of the works, but the vocal writing is different as well – more spontaneous, dramatic and volatile than with many of the earlier works.

I confess to not knowing the music of Monteverdi’s contemporaries sufficiently well to comment on the individuality of his earlier works – still, these concerts do allow the unschooled listener to register differences between music written by the same composer at different stages of his life. And one can glean by association how the music of Monteverdi’s more conservative fellow-composers might have sounded.

I must say that, had Baroque Voices decided to proceed through the madrigals chronologically, I would have been just as enchanted, if less informed, by what I encountered. In context, even in the earlier Monteverdi pieces the music has what seems to my ears an enormous variety of expression. The present concert began with two madrigals from Book Three, works whose sounds represented for me a wonderful marriage of energy and delicacy, the contrasts of pure light and oscillating energies in the writing producing a totally enchanting effect throughout.

The second madrigal, “O come è gran martire” had its stratospheric opening marred by a banging door, but the singers continued undeterred, the music expanding like the light of dawn as the men’s voices joined the women’s at “O soave mio adore”. Pepe Becker’s and Jayne Tankersley’s soprano voices were able to spin their lines in thirds over vistas of great enchantment, to breathtaking effect.

True, the instrumental opening of the first of the Book Seven madrigals which followed immediately threw a startlingly-focused interval of a second at us, its instantaneous resolution heightening the passionate marriage of beauty with tension in a way that the earlier madrigals don’t often explore. This madrigal Romanesca for two soprano voices allowed us to savor the differences between two exceptional singers – Pepe Becker’s voice here sounding to my ears richer and mellower, and Jayne Tankersley’s sharper, more pungent and flavoursome.

Together the voices set one another off beautifully – both singers used the music’s figurations compellingly, their bodies expressing by movement and expression the agitations/excitements/ecstasies suggested by the heartfelt (anonymous) text. I especially liked the way the singers would push their voices past the “beautiful singing” threshold and into a world of expression that occasionally touched raw nerves but in doing so reached those intensities required by both poet and composer in each madrigal.

Monteverdi’s theatrical sense was never far away from these settings, the singers here relishing such interactions, as in Book 7’s Al lume dell stelle (mistakenly listed as from Book 3 in the program), where the men (tenor and bass) begin their invocation to the stars, the lines resembling tendrils of light floating upwards and falling back in a kind of spent ecstasy. Tenor Oliver Sewell and bass David Morriss together brought a fine, surging passion to “O celesti facelle…”, while in reply the two sopranos made something equally tremulous out of “Luci care e serene…” And there were stunning harmonic juxtapositionings with seconds grinding and being resolved to thirds, squeezing every drop of angst and sweet release from the situation.

In the beautiful Se per estremo, the alto voice of Andrea Cochrane led off, firm, sonorous and lovely – with the two tenors the middle voices were able to conjure up wondrous harmonic colorations throughout, the tenors, Oliver Sewell and Jeffrey Chang, essaying some finely-nuanced work in thirds, and judiciously pouring their tones into those ambient harmonies to beguiling effect. What a contrast with the vigorous and impassioned utterances of the following Tornate, the two tenors accompanied by Robert Oliver’s ever-reliable bass viol and Stephen Pickett’s perky chitarrino (renaissance guitar), and with the long-breathed sighings of “Voi de quel dolce” interrupted by hot-blooded exhortations – marvellous!

The evening was further enhanced by the spoken contribution of David Groves, responsible for the English translations of these madrigals, who made an appearance in each half of the concert. He explained briefly the context of the poetry (by Tasso) concerning the enchantress Armida, and her would-be-lover Rinaldo, who has abandoned her. One didn’t really have to understand Italian to catch the reader’s impassioned range of expression, and glean the depth and breadth of emotion in the poetry. So, each of a group of three madrigals had their texts read, and then sung by the Voices. The results were astonishing, especially in the first two of the three pieces. The singers vividly evoked the enchantress’s fury and despair at her abandonment – some of the lines stung and burnt with astonishing candor – and the dying fall of the music at “Hor qui manco lo spirto a la dolente” was almost Wagnerian in its impact.

In the third of these, Poi ch’ella (When she came to herself), both soprano voices sounded, I thought, a bit strained (not surprisingly, considering what and how they had sung throughout the first half of the concert) – this was music of resignation, though again impassioned at the end as Armida bemoans her abandonment. The alto and tenors kept the middle lines alive, and the sopranos overcame their vocal discomfiture to manage the final cadence convincingly.

As with the other concerts in the series there were in the programme so many delights to be had that it would take as long as the concert took to both mention and read about all of them! My notes contain exclamations written at the time such as “excellent teamwork between the two sopranos….making something amazingly expressive out of the final line” for the Book 7 O come sei gentile (How gracious you are), and in the following Book 3 Chi’o non t’ami (That I might not love you), “Hymn-like, beautifully modulated…..alto and tenor 2 beautifully amalgamate their tones at “Come poss’io lasciarti e non morire”…..”.

David Groves returned to read us the poems (again by Tasso) describing the anguish of Tancredi, who has killed his disguised lover, Clorinda, in armed combat, and looks for her body in the darkness. (Monteverdi also set an account of the battle between the two, in the “Combattimento” , found in Book 8 of the madrigals.) My overriding on-the-spot comment regarding the performance of the trio of settings was that “the intensity simply keeps coming in waves from all of the singers”. Despite Pepe Becker obviously having some kind of cough, she was still able to deliver those astonishing stratospheric notes needed for “Ma dove o lasso?”, a sombre processional of growing grief, culminating in the cries of “Ahi, sfortunato!…” Certainly no-one would have felt emotionally short-changed in any way in the face of such knife-edged feeling throughout these performances.

One of my favorites from the many splendid things we heard throughout the concert’s second half was the Book 7 Ecco vicine, sung by the soprano 2, Jayne Tankersley and alto Andrea Cochrane. The playing of the continuo, especially Robert Oliver’s bass viol, beautifully underpinned this Book 7 madrigal’s somewhat hyper-expressive outpourings. The words, so important for the composer throughout his entire oeuvre, exotically describe the “beloved” as a “fair Tigress”, and entertain the conceit that wherever the beloved goes, through all kinds of different geographies and under foreign skies, the lover will follow her, with a “lover’s heart”.

Monteverdi boldly renders these words and ideas in his music, great urgency at “Fuggimi pur con sempiterno orrore”, and lovely, spare, al fresco writing about the valleys, rocks, and mountains where the beloved’s footprints are found – lots of air and space in the textures.Then comes music of great and certain devotion: “Ch’andrei la dove spire e dove passi…..bacciando l’aria e adorando i passi……” Wonderful performances by all of such characterful music!

Very great credit to Baroque Voices and their intrepid instrumentalists! We were an extremely appreciative audience on this occasion, but not a large one – whatever it takes to get more people interested in the splendors of this music and its performance here in Wellington, needs to be done before the next of these concerts (the date for “The Full Monte 4” is yet to be finalized). The music is searingly beautiful, the accompanying emotions and responses are eminently accessible, and the performances are often spellbinding. What more could one ask for?