Alfred Hill (1869-1960) – A Birthday Celebration (139 years young)

Alfred Hill (1869-1960)
A Birthday Celebration (139 years young)
ALFRED HILL – String Quartets: Nos. 7 and 9
The Dominion String Quartet (Yury Gezentsvey, Rosemary Harris, violins / Donald Maurice, viola / David Chickering, ‘cello)
Wadestown Presbyterian Church
16th December 2008

Introducing the music and the performers for this concert was Donald Maurice, the violist of the Dominion String Quartet, a musician and scholar who has worked tirelessly to re-establish the reputation and credentials of Alfred Hill as New Zealand’s first professional composer. He talked about the formation of the Quartet in response to the challenge of recording all seventeen of Alfred Hill’s works in this medium for the Naxos label. Longer-term, the Quartet hopes to be able to tackle other New Zealand works, including some more of the repertoire written by composers both prior to and following Douglas Lilburn.

This concert was in fact held to celebrate Alfred Hill’s birthday, in fact the composer’s 139th, an occasion further made special by the presence in the audience of the composer’s great-nephew, whom the audience appropriately acknowledged.

The Dominion Quartet has already released two CDs of Alfred Hill’s works (see the review of Vol.2 of this series elsewhere in this issue), and this concert featured two works recently recorded for the next CD which will appear during 2009. These performances of Quartets Nos. 7 and 9 were both New Zealand public premieres, and served further notice of the significance of Hill’s compositional output. Long regarded in many people’s minds merely as the writer of the charmingly dated song “Waiata Poi”, the composer whom these quartets represented came freshly before us as a vibrant and compelling creator of a memorable and enduring body of music. Quartet No.7 made an arresting beginning to the concert, with a rhythmically snappy introductory figure that was to launch a long and sinuous first subject, one whose questing energies led through a contrasting legato episode to a development where the same rhythmic “kick” stimulated exploratory harmonic shifts with chromatic agitato figures sliding from hue to hue. The pizzicato opening of the second movement set in motion a wonderful waltz whose trio section, introduced by the lower strings, had more than a hint of schmaltz in its makeup. The slow movement took us to further realms of fancy, with a Borodin-like melody whose radiance was offset by deep sostenuto strings, redolent of the Russian master’s famous “Nocturne” movement in another quartet. In conclusion, the finale’s vigorous stride brooked little interference from the occasional modulatory swerve, bringing the music homeward to the point where the quartet’s opening rhythmic flourish returned, stimulating celebratory fanfares and other vigorous gestures which concluded the work in an extremely satisfying manner.

With the following Quartet No.9 the development of a more personal and self-confident style of writing by Hill, described by Donald Maurice in his introductory talk, became even more evident, especially with the work’s slow movement, which seemed to come from nowhere after a more conventional but tightly-worked opening movement, with plenty of directly-expressed energy and focus. How profoundly everything then changed, with a strange and new world being brought to view! – intense pressure-points of sound, column- like creations whose proportions slowly evolved and reshaped like pillars of mist, a vision whose intensities were quietly resolved at the end. Then, just as disconcertingly, the scherzo, a festive dance with an engaging rhythmically ambiguous pizzicato accompaniment swept away the gloom with Dvorak- like vigour, clearing the decks for the finale. Hill took no prisoners with this strongly-etched music, biting chords at the beginning bridged with rhythmic patternings that led off into a melancholic lower- strings tune, and a central episode that looked inward as much as forwards, making the return to the opening music all the more telling. It was the work of a composer who seemed to be saying at the conclusion “This is how it is – like it or not !”. If performances weren’t absolutely note-perfect at all times throughout, the players nevertheless captured every mood of the music to a telling degree, and did its composer full justice. One can hardly wait for the recording, as much to hear the Fifth Quartet also, as to relish yet again the delights of those heard this evening in concert.

Afterwards musicians and audience were able to join together and sing “Happy Birthday” to Alfred Hill, as well as enjoy a wonderfully voluminous cake made by violinist Rosemary Harris – certainly a birthday worth remembering! (PM)

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