Michael Houstoun bows out triumphantly at Waikanae in the company of the Amici Ensemble

Waikanae Music Society

Michael Houstoun and the Amici Ensemble (led by Donald Armstrong)
The Amici Ensemble: Emma Barron and Anna van der Zee (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Oleksandr Gunchenko (double bass), Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade (flutes), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

J S Bach:
Trio sonata from The Musical Offering
Partita No 4 in D, BWV 898
Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G, BWV 1049
Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 9 February, 2:30 pm

The first concert in the Waikanae Music Society’s 2020 season welcomed the audience with a ‘Full House’ notice at the door: meaning that around 500 filled the hall. It was a celebration of Michael Houstoun’s long career: his last concert for the society which has hosted him regularly since 1986. He played in the company of Donald Armstrong’s Amici Ensemble which has also been a major and very popular contributor to Waikanae’s concerts. It was an inspiring combination.

The programme that was devised was particularly thoughtful and appropriate, serving, somewhat incidentally perhaps, to display a range of Bach’s instrumental music not all of which is well known. One solo piano piece and Bach’s best known keyboard concerto, both featured Houstoun at the piano. Giving Houstoun time to catch his breath, the ensemble, including Douglas Mews at the harpsichord, played the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering for flute, violin and continuo and the fourth Brandenburg Concerto.

Attention to the RNZ Concert crisis
But before they began president Germana Nicklin spoke briefly about the crisis that was upper-most in everyone’s thoughts – Radio New Zealand management’s intention to get rid of RNZ Concert, firing almost the entire staff, and giving its FM transmission network to a new programme devoted to what the management thinks are the tastes of young people, let’s say teen-agers. She invited Elizabeth Kerr to the stage, the former manager of Concert FM, as it used to be called (no longer if Thompson and Macalister have their way: it’ll be Concert AM, only some of the year and with no obtrusive human voices). And Elizabeth read a passionate message from Wilma Smith, founding first violin of the New Zealand String Quartet and later, Concertmaster of both the NZSO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There was no mistaking her dismay and anger at the barbaric plans.

The Trio Sonata
But to the music at hand. The Trio Sonata played by Armstrong, flautist Bridget Douglas and cellist Ken Ichinose, with Mews with the harpsichord continuo, was one of the many varied pieces of The Musical Offering that Bach sent to Frederick the Great in 1747. It’s entitled Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale (‘Sonata on a Royal theme’). The trio sonata form was common enough at the time and Bach wrote a number of others, but this one is unusually technical and makes formidable play with the theme that the King had invited him to use for an elaborate fugue. In fact it matched the gravity of our situation, sombre, in a minor key, in spite of the generally happy character of the flute.

The performance set the benchmark for the concert, as all the pieces were played without the introduction of any unwritten decoration (as far as I could tell), or the imposition of any inappropriate emotional character beyond what is intrinsic to the notes on the page. And this continued to characterise the two following Allegro movements. It offered proof of their ability to sustain the serious character of the King’s theme. Bach’s seriousness pf purpose seemed to be illuminated in the extended Andante movement, spacious and thoughtful.

Keyboard Partita No 4 
Houstoun’s choice of the fourth of the challenging keyboard Partitas was a further mark of the concert’s serious yet deeply satisfying character. Each of the six partitas has three movements in common (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and a Gigue in all but one case), along with a wide variety of other movements. No 4 is the only one that opens with an ‘Overture’ and it presented Houstoun with a formidable opportunity to express what I suppose can only be discovered in the greatest classical music. And that undoubtedly illustrates what great art can offer to those who have troubled to cultivate and familiarise themselves with the musical material that composers like Bach used to explore the depths of human experience. Nevertheless, the fugal character of the Overture’s second part avoided undue complexity and was the more rewarding for that.

Houstoun seemed to have discovered how to handle the most interesting and revelatory aspects of each subsequent movement. In some ways the second movement, Allemande, is both the longest and the most elaborate, with a subtle change of mood following pauses at the end of each paragraph. Longer pauses occur in the slow Sarabande and though it’s not a slow movement that plumbs the profundities of the Chaconne of the second violin partita, Houstoun managed to suggest a depth that made a singular impression.

The Gigue struck me as a particularly rewarding movement in Houstoun’s hands, with fugal elements and episodes for the left hand alone that led to complex polyphony.

Brandenburg Concerto No 4
All players arrived on stage to play the fourth Brandenburg concerto, with Douglas Mews again on the harpsichord, and others as named above. Each of the six Brandenburgs is different; No 4 has the character of a concerto grosso, featuring a group of three (or so) solo instruments (two flutes and Armstrong’s violin) and the balance (‘ripieno’), a small core of strings and harpsichord.

As with the Trio Sonata, the sound of the harpsichord didn’t project very well. While it was often audible in the earlier piece, among a larger number of modern instruments in the Brandenburg concerto, it failed to make much contribution. Nevertheless, the first and third movements were particularly lively and entertaining. The Andante might have been on the slow side; perhaps better described as careful and studied, ending with slow chords that introduced the last movement. The splendid fugue was particularly effective, shared interestingly among the three solo instruments. Donald Armstrong enjoyed an impressively virtuosic solo passage towards the end.

Piano Concerto in D minor 
Bach’s keyboard concerto, No 1 in D minor, really does demand performance on the piano and I felt that its choice as Houstoun’s last performance for Waikanae again demonstrated his serious and intelligent approach to this occasion and to music generally. In spite of the many great performances of the popular and spectacular piano concertos that comprise part of the symphony orchestral repertoire, Bach’s No 1 in D minor is a singular work that seems to be rarely played, though I remember clearly a performance, my first, unsurprisingly, in the old Concert Chamber of the Town Hall (it shocked me that it was replaced by a smaller space in the shape of the Ilott Theatre). It was, perhaps, in the 1950s (the pianist and the orchestral ensemble I can’t recall). Its seriousness and power impressed me then just as this performance did on Sunday.

All the instruments contributed with distinction, as they had in the Brandenburg, often playing in unison, without a great deal of fugal or contrapuntal writing. It’s widely considered a major preliminary step towards the piano concerto that emerged in the second half of the 18th century, the piano no longer just a polite member of the ensemble but a striking solo contributor. Towards the end there’s a striking dialogue between piano and cello and a virtuosic cadenza.

As with the performances of the three previous works, the most striking characteristic was the sense of integrity and honesty with which all players handled the music: no straining for ‘Romantic’ colours and emotions: just the notes in the score played with honesty and faithfulness.

This was a distinguished and momentous concert in which every aspect had been carefully studied and prepared. I hope that Michael Houstoun will be able to reflect on the occasion with as much gratitude and pleasure as the audience which, at the end, rose in its entirety to its feet.


Exceptional recital from Alexander Gavrylyuk gets tumultuous applause at Waikanae

Alexander Gavrylyuk – piano

Waikanae Music Society

Mozart: Rondo in D, K485
Brahms: Rhapsody in G minor, Op 79 No. 2
               Intermezzo in B flat minor, Op 117 No. 2
               Intermezzo in C sharp minor, Op. 117 No. 3
Liszt: Paganini Étude No 6
Saint-Saëns: Danse-Macabre (Liszt / Horowitz)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition  

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 3 November 2019, 2:30 pm

Alexander Gavrylyuk, the internationally celebrated Ukranian/Australian pianist, has become a regular visitor to Waikanae. He played there in 2017 and 2016, so I knew that we would be in for an exceptional concert. Peter Mechen, my colleague at Middle C, had written about the pianist’s ability to enchant his listeners with every note and in doing so, display a Sviatoslav Richter-like capacity to invest each sound with a kind of ‘centre of being’. Reviews of his concerts from all over the world attest to his brilliance. Engaging him for Waikanae after New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Russia, France, the Netherlands and the Wigmore Hall in London is a great coup for the Waikanae Music Society.

The hall was full. The gorgeous Fazioli piano, perhaps the best piano in New Zealand, was on the stage, and the artist, a slight modest young man, appeared from behind the screen, sat down and started to play.

Mozart Rondo in D K485
The notes, flew like butterflies, effortlessly. This was a magician conjuring up music with cascading notes, the music reflecting different shades with each repeat of the theme; an understated humour distinguished the piece. Gavrylyuk played it fast with a light, ethereal air. This is a joyful piece. The main theme was borrowed from Johann Christian Bach and it appears in various transformations, modulating into distant keys and transposed from treble to bass, making this a fairly complex but delightful Rondo.

Brahms Rhapsody and Intermezzi
The Mozart Rondo was followed by a bracket of Brahms works calling for a very different musical vision. Though the Rhapsody was written in 1879, the two Intermezzi are late Brahms, when he came back to writing short works for the piano, creating new genres for these pieces. The Rhapsody in G minor is built around a grand theme, which Gavrylyuk played broadly with a rich, mellow sound. The piece gradually increased in intensity, yet within this intensity he brought out the full flowering of the lyrical passages.

The two Intermezzi were of contrasting character. The music critic, Eduard Hanslick, described them as thoroughly subjective, personal monologues. The B flat minor Intermezzo is gentle, singing, with themes which evolve and transform one into another. The C sharp minor Intermezzo is a profoundly sad work which Brahms described as the lullaby of all his griefs. It is like a song, a prayer.

Gavrylyuk brought out its dark yet resigned depth.

Liszt Paganini Étude No 6
Paganini gave new meaning to the idea of the virtuoso. He produced sounds and effects on the violin that were previously unimaginable. He had the personality of the virtuoso showman. Liszt, with his incredible technique on the grand piano set about cultivating an image of the virtuoso like Paganini’s and wrote these studies on themes by Paganini and as a homage to him, arranging them after Paganini’s death. Of these No. 6, based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice is the best known. It is spectacular and fiendishly difficult, showing off the potential of the instrument and the skills of the artist.

My father, when he was a young man, had heard Horowitz in concert, and for him there was no pianist like him, he was indisputably No. 1. I grew up with a 78 rpm record of Horowitz playing this piece. It is brilliant and hair-raising. Liszt transcribed Saint-Saëns’ orchestral tone-poem for piano and Horowitz added further embellishment and technical difficulties to Liszt’s version. It did not, however, daunt Gavrylyuk. He played effortlessly, showing off what a fine pianist can do. The performance was fun and his mastery of the technical challenges was prodigious.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Mussorgsky’s ten colourful piano pieces were composed in memory of his friend, the painter, Victor Hartmann. Each piece captures in sound one of Hartmann’s 400 paintings. They range from the comic, Gnomus, the nostalgic The Old Castle, the playful Tuilleries, the frentic Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens, the ponderous turning of the heavy wheels in Bydlo, the pompous and satirical Goldberg and Schmuyle, the busy Marketplace at Limoges, the ghostly Catacombs: Roman Sepulchre, the absurd and bizarre Little Hut on Chicken Legs, and finally the majestic Great Gate of Kiev. They are connected with Promenades, each Promenade different, suggesting a spectator walking, in anticipation, from picture to picture. There is mystery, melancholy and humour in the work and a measure of the Russian spirit of national identity reflected in the Great Gate of Kiev with its Russian Orthodox chants. A spectacular and memorable performance.

This was an amazing concert and the tumultuous applause of the large audience reflected their enjoyment and appreciation; it was a privilege to hear one of the great pianists of the younger generation. His playing was stunning, and the memory of it will be cherished by all who heard it. The nagging question, however, is why we had to travel to Waikanae, a small seaside town, to hear one of the finest pianists to visit New Zealand. Alexander Gavrylyuk plays in some of the greatest concert halls of the world, but those responsible for providing the best in music for the New Zealand public can’t organize a concert for him in the Michael Fowler Centre: neither a solo recital nor a concerto appearance in Wellington with the NZSO. Before the New Zealand Broadcasting Service and the then National Orchestra were restructured such a concert would have been held in the Town Hall and would have been broadcast for a wide audience to enjoy. Much has been lost in the restructuring.

Post scriptum
It is unusual for a reviewer to comment on his own review, but I regret that although I consider that I wrote a fair and accurate review of Alexander Gavrylyuk’s concert I failed to capture its essence.
It was not a concert like any other. It was an experience that would stay with those who were there. The music seemed to just sprout from the artist, like someone musical utterance in a trance. Perhaps it was an idiosyncratic performance. Some of the pieces might have seemed a little faster or slower than usually played, but they all seemed to be the expression of the inner of the soul of the artist. There was a spontaneity and fluidity about Gavrylyuk’s playing that is impossible to capture in words. He just created music there in front of us, totally absorbed in the music. The music spoke directly to the listeners’ inner beings. It was magic.
Steven Sedley 

Direct from Nelson: Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon in singular, absorbing solo and duet piano music

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – piano duet and solo

Bach: Two Chorales transcribed by György Kurtág: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig
Schubert: Lebensstürme in A minor, D 947
Debussy: Petite Suite
Beethoven: Sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106 (Hammerklavier)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 17 February, 2:30 pm

This concert was, reportedly, arranged through a somewhat unorthodox arrangement between the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and the Waikanae society. I’d spent five days in Nelson and had heard Dénes Várjon playing about four times, including once with his wife Izabella. One of them included the Hammerklavier as well as the last sonata, Op 111; but the first three pieces in this recital were played after I left. I was delighted to hear them at Waikanae.

Bach was a major source of inspiration for contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág and he made several arrangements of arias from the chorales. I didn’t know these ones; and listening to these piano duet arrangements one could be forgiven for wondering who the composer was, as the early stages of both had an enigmatic character that really didn’t bring Bach to mind straight away. The sounds seemed influenced by at least late 19th century music: harmonically as well as in the pianists’ articulation and dynamics. But with the underlying Bachian melodies,  the music revealed such intense conviction and coherence, it slowly became clear that Bach was the unmistakable inspiration. In Gottes Zeit, the bass (Dénes) entered first and then Izabella with the treble part. Though the two pianists showed remarkable uniformity of rhythm and musical character, what astonished me was the way the primo and secondo parts had such distinct voices. In the second chorale, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, I was fascinated by the sound Izabella drew from the piano, almost as if she had secreted a rank of organ pipes in the piano, so pure and bell-like was the sound. In speaking with others who were also mesmerised by it, I gathered that it was achieved by keeping the key slightly, very sensitively depressed, holding the hammers in a certain position on the strings.

It was a beautiful performance that created a profoundly meditative spirit, with the most intriguing counterpoint. In both the pieces, the fascination lay in the profound sense of Bach’s presence throughout, even though so much was conspicuously of the 20th century.

Schubert’s Lebensstürme 
The duo’s playing of Schubert’s late Lebensstürme D 947 was driven by a single-minded determination to draw attention to contrasts and similarities between the Bach/Kurtág pieces and the Schubert; their request for no applause at the end of the Bach was clearly to highlight unexpected relationships that might enrich audience response to both. Their close juxtaposition certainly did that for me. At the most superficial level one could hear comparable spiritual and intellectual characteristics in both. Schubert’s abrupt call to attention with heavy opening chords might not have been the clearest Schubert signature, but the following lyrical episodes did clarify the matter; and certain dramatic passages, and some quite elaborate material in the development section suggested that Schubert had Beethoven’s more serious and intense piano pieces in mind.

There is speculation that this piece was the first movement of a planned sonata for two pianos, and the structure of the piece and weight of the music, especially the first arresting theme which returned several times, made that seem very likely. It was again a most authoritative and engaging performance.

Petite Suite 
Debussy’s Petite Suite is familiar, not so much in its original four-hands version, but in the various orchestrations.  I must say that as with many (most?) French piano pieces of the late 19th century, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, that got themselves orchestrated are more interesting, even exciting, in their original piano version.  The tip-toe dancing  in the second movement, Cortètge, and the quirky, forthright music in Ballet, seems so perfectly attuned to the piano, especially with all the weight or lightness and colour available when four hands are engaged.

Much of this renewed delight in original piano versions is the result of the delightful, infectious playing by this gifted and inspiring duet.

In the second half, Dénes Várjon was left alone to play Beethoven’s Op 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. My reaction to this performance, in a different space, on a Fazioli piano rather than a Steinway, was similar in some ways, though I guess that the warmer, perhaps easier to achieve lyricism and clarity on this piano in this space removed a certain amount of what I described, inspiring words like ‘tumultuous’, ‘abandon’, ‘the wild character of this performance’, ‘unbridled power’, ‘rebellious’.

The speed, energy and power of the performance were here at Waikanae, and the precipitate changes of emotion and mood, dynamic contrasts from bar to bar, again held the audience spell-bound. The delicious toying with the listener’s conventional expectations were still there to surprise, for example, the witty petering out at the end of the Scherzo. And teasing, aborted gestures that keep you in their grip in the slow movement.

But the last movement seemed to recall best the impression of abandon, of ‘rough and tumble’, the unexpected (even though familiar) halt in the middle of the last movement, and the massive forays that command the keyboard from top to bottom, made this an exciting and draining performance, fully the equal of what I’d heard in Nelson.

And, as in Nelson, it was a sold-out recital that won huge applause.


Aroha Quartet revisits Waikanae Music Society with polished, well-balanced programme

Waikanae Music Society

Aroha String Quartet (Haihong Liu and Simeon Broom, violins; Zhongxian Jin, viola; Robert Ibell, cello)

Haydn: String Quartet in G, Op.33 no.5
Piazzolla: Tango ballet suite
Anthony Ritchie: Whakatipua
Mendelssohn: String Quartet no.6 in F minor, Op.80

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday, 10 April 2016, 2.30pm

It is always a pleasure to hear the Aroha String Quartet and their varied programmes.

The Haydn quartet had a rather sotto voce commencement; the movement was described in the programme notes as a greeting, such as ‘how do you do’. All of Haydn’s jollity and wit were present.

The second movement was enchanting, with a chirpy ending that brought chuckles from the audience. The scherzo was full of changes and interruptions, while its trio was a graceful contrast, with an abrupt ending. The final movement featured a dotted rhythm, and appeared to be a slow dance with variations. It provided a good precursor to the dances to follow.

The sections of Piazzolla’s composition had movement titles, but it was not always apparent where one ended and another began. In a radio interview, Robert Ibell said that he was not aware of the work having been played in New Zealand before; they had difficulty because the supplier of the scores sent only a full score. The parts arrived only days before the performance. So in the meantime they had to cut, copy and paste the full score to create their individual scores.

Contrasting vigorous and dreamlike passages were features of Titulos (Introduction) and elsewhere. Throughout, there was a great variety of writing and of instrumental sounds, all having plenty of individual input. The other sections were: La calle (The Street), Encuentro/Olvido (Encounter/Forgetfulness), Cabaret, Soledad (Solitude), and La calle, again.

There were some great sounds from the viola. A review of a CD of the work found through Google states: ‘The work alternates between vibrant and forceful passages that recall ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky and a passionate melancholy for the slower movements. … the “Cabaret” movement … comes closest to mirroring pure tango music.’ The work exemplified the composer’s fusion of tango music with that of the Western classical tradition. One could find echoes of Haydn here, although the music was written only 60 years ago.

Balmy passages quickly gave way to more turbulent ones. As noted by the website, some movements are more dance-like than others. It was remarked to me in the interval that the Aroha Quartet was a little too restrained for this music; bandoneóns would have been more spirited, abandoned and rambunctious.

Anthony Ritchie’s work opened with the most gorgeous sounds, followed by a lilting, dance-like section. Each instrument was distinctive in its part, but when blend was required, it was there. Some parts were modal in tonality, with hints of Douglas Lilburn’s music present.

Mendelssohn’s final string quartet has a spooky opening, the remainder of that movement alternating ‘between rage and lamentation’ as the programme note said, the whole quartet being influenced by his sorrow at the recent sudden death of his sister, Fanny. The melodic invention for which Mendelssohn is noted was ever-present, even lushness of expression, but also a new anger, anguish and tension brought out particularly in the second movement. Quiet passages served to point up this tension.

The adagio recalled some of Mendelssohn’s other slow movements, but its intensity was much greater. I detected Schumann-like elements. The first violinist in particular judged skilfully the rendering of the subtle nuances of this movement, but all played stunningly well. At times there were the most delicate touches; the movement had a peaceful end. Not so the finale last movement. There were solemn, even bitter chords, but also moments of calm contemplation, that soon changed to rapid declamation – perhaps even rejection – with an almost furious ending.


It was a most enjoyable concert, with a variety of interesting and approachable music, beautifully played.