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Beautiful Britten, sterling Brahms – a heartfelt tribute to Norbert Heuser

By , 17/06/2014

Old St. Pauls, Thorndon Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Peter Barber (viola) / Catherine McKay (piano)

BRITTEN – Lachrymae, for viola and piano (after John Dowland)
BRAHMS – Viola Sonata No.2 in E-flat Op.120/2

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday, 17th June 2014

What would have been planned originally by violist Peter Barber and pianist Catherine McKay as an occasion featuring a richly-wrought and most gratifying pair of contrasting works for viola and piano took on an additional note of elegiac sadness by the time the two musicians came to present their concert. Two days before, the death had occurred of a former NZSO colleague of Barber’s – in fact, a fellow-violist, and a prominent member of the orchestra for no less than thirty-eight years, Norbert Heuser.

How appropriate and moving, then, to hear Peter Barber speak of his esteemed colleague and friend before the concert, in effect dedicating the performances to Heuser’s memory. Fittingly, the music we heard featured the viola, the instrument that each of these musicians played, of course – but even more appropriately, the venue (the exquisite and richly-appointed Old St.Paul’s Church in Thorndon) was that which was to be used the following day for the memorial service – a circumstance which obviously carried its own particular poignancy.

And what music had been chosen! – unwittingly, of course, as regards making any specific commemorative gesture, but with an unerring instinct on the part of both players for focusing on love and its power to heal all sorrows and restore what could be held fast of “this worlde’s joye”. The Britten work, which I had not heard previously, was particularly enthralling in this respect, though the Brahms sonata had, too, the capacity to express a kind of fierce joy occasionally tinged with loss and regret.

What power music which one encounters for the very first time can sometimes have! – and especially so when the performances are proper, flesh-and-blood, live, here-and-now experiences, delivered with skill, focus and rapt concentration! True, in situations such as these one’s critical responses are perhaps coloured (I very nearly wrote the word “clouded”!) by the delight of first sensations – rather, in fact, like falling in love! Thus it was here with me, upon hearing the Britten work.

A rich, sombre opening brought forth sounds that seemed to be wrung and resonated from the depths of feeling – in places tremulous and almost Mahlerian in effect (reminiscent of the finale of that composer’s angst-ridden Sixth Symphony). Here, the piano constantly oscillated with tremolando-laden emotion while the viola sounded Aeolian-like strands which were stretched across the vistas as if to resonate in sympathy.

More angular and quixotic, the following sequence exchanged ascending/descending figurations between piano and viola, before halting the vertiginous flow and setting viola pizzicati against richly-sounded piano chords – for all the world the sounds to my ears conveying the sense of a beating heart…..the string textures graduated towards rich double-stoppings as the piano’s chordings climbed, explored and intensified.

Britten was reputed to be no lover of the music of Brahms – in fact he’s on record somewhere as remarking to an acquaintance: – “I make a point of playing one Brahms recording a year, just to remind myself how awful the music is!”……such anecdotes are often relished more for their wit and outrageous sentiment than for veracity, and perhaps aren’t as such to be trusted. In point of fact, the very next exchange between the instruments – the piano stern and commanding, the viola dogged and determined – sounded to my surprised ears extremely Brahmsian, especially the way the piano chords were echoed and resonated by the viola’s energetic figurations.

Piano chords turned into flowing rivulets under Catherine McKay’s fingers, along with string figures coalescing into melody, seeming to want by this time to clothe the gestures in less angular and disparate utterances – though the night ride had a little way to go still, before the sunrise. The muse was yet to show her hand, waiting for her moment while still more quixotic gestures mockingly returned to the piano, Peter Barber’s viola dancing to the mood, though impishly punctuating the phrase-ends with pizzicato notes.

And then it was as though worlds gradually began to intertwine – at first through the gloom, then through coruscation and upheaval, and finally through rapture and ecstasy! Firstly pianistic tintinabulations sought to comfort the viola’s sorrowful sighings, but then tried a different tack, building huge blocks of sound with progressive portentous chords, the viola running between the great columns of sound towards the growing light, becoming more and more excited, and finally throwing itself into the piano’s open arms in a passionately-voiced embrace, an unashamed love-song!

From this it seemed at first something of a Brahmsian (sorry, Ben!) take on an Elizabethan melody, rich and pulsating! But both musicians were inspired at this stage, moving with ease and fluency into those leaner, sparser, more focused realms of Elizabethan sensibility – Peter Barber’s viola “centered” the melody as if it were a prayer, and Catherine McKay’s piano song resounded like a lute paying homage to love. How touching it all seemed by the end – more powerfully so, I think, by Britten’s deconstruction of his own sound world to connect with Dowland’s.

My apologies to the reader for indulging thus far in what seems far more like a fanciful commentary on the music itself rather than the performance of it – though having never seen nor heard the music previously, my remarks above can be taken as a set of reflections on the way it was played and interpreted, just as relevantly as regarding the actual work.

I almost needed somewhere to go and lie down after such an intense listening experience – but there was no rest for the wicked, as, after a short re-alignment of things we were off again, this time into a world of expression the previous composer loved to hate! The work by Brahms was a transcription by the composer of a sonata originally written for clarinet, one of two such pieces (incidentally both have been thus transcribed, to my great delight!).

The string timbres really make the sonata a freshly-minted work, more youthful, immediate and “striving” I think than does the rather more serene, somewhat Wordsworthian clarinet. Thus it was that, despite its opus number it seemed in places a young man’s work, borne out especially by the piano part. In places, it’s really of an order of difficulty which another pianist at the concert with me confirmed afterwards, by laughingly describing a certain sequence on the opening pages as “a pianist’s graveyard”!

Catherine McKay’s playing was, however, seized with such purposeful focus that the music, spills and all, leapt off the page most satisfyingly!  Neither player emerged completely unscathed from the more agitated of the opening exchanges, but the energy and teamwork was of an order that carried the music’s message with all the élan and presence that one would want for these sounds.

No let-up for the second movement’s Allegro appassionato – at the outset a dark, impetuous waltz-like trajectory gripped the music’s order, Peter Barber’s playing digging deeply into the instrument’s tones, and Catherine McKay’s in turn responding with real heft and passionate utterance. What a gorgeous hynm-like middle section this work has! – part ceremony, part deep forest mythology music, the Old St.Paul’s piano speaking in suitably nostalgic, somewhat forte-piano-like tones in places, charming and even rustic in effect. Processional-like, too, was the Andante con moto opening of the finale, in these players’ hands sounding like a “turn for home”, the tones and phrasings speaking to this listener of places “where the heart is”.

The variations that followed explored both according and contrasting exchanges between the instruments, with the players barely able to contain themselves in the excitable fifth variation, piano, then viola tearing into the fray, pulling the melody about every which way!  Finally the sounds were allowed a brief few moments of composure before a brilliant and emphatic coda gave us an ending we acclaimed with enthusiasm.

Rare and strange to find oneself within what seemed a matter of hours back in that same building, with the previous day’s concert’s tribute to Norbert Heuser still faintly resonating as people gathered for the memorial service. Came spoken tributes and more music from family and friends and ex-colleagues – daughter Brigitte Heuser sang JS Bach’s Erbarme dich mein Gott from the St.Matthew Passion, and a quartet of string-players performed Haydn, the “Emperor” Quartet’s well-known Adagio cantabile – and we watched projected images and heard recordings of other music that, with the spoken reminiscences very properly brought both laughter and tears. Life, as with music-making and concert-giving, is what happens when you’re planning something else. What happened here – sadly, not the life’s “something else” that was originally planned – was instead a response to the unforeseen that was on all sides affecting and memorable.

 

 

 

 

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