Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

The Floating Bride

Songs, violin sonata and piano trio by Fauré, Harris, Elgar, Brahms

Jenny Wollerman, Piers Lane, Douglas Beilman, Helene Pohl, Rolf Gjelsten

Nelson School of Music, Saturday 31 January

Piers Lane is a top international pianist and he should fill a house of reasonable size anywhere in the world. Here he did not play solo and was happy to be simply a collegial musician: he accompanied singers, a violinist and took the piano part in a trio. But his presence, his modesty and ready collaboration as equal partner with other musicians were a constant delight.

It opened with Jenny Wollerman singing, first, three Fauré songs: Les roses d’Ispahan, Au bord de l’eau and Après un rêve. There was a little much graininess in Wollerman’s voice in the first but her normal purity of tone returned in the second; for the third, her voice was perhaps a bit too wide awake to portray her state on waking from a dream.

Then came Ross Harris’s new song cycle, The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village, settings of poems by Vincent O’Sullivan that were inspired by paintings of Chagall; a project that Harris had himself suggested to O’Sullivan. They were sung most skillfully and imaginatively by Jenny Wollerman whose discreet gestures and body movement – in The Dancer for example – helped her interpretation: and though the settings did not always aim to reflect the sense or feeling of the words, they often created visual images that were surprisingly evocative of Chagall’s paintings.

The piano part was quite elaborate, sometimes even, as in The Ladder to the Moon or Give me a Green Horse, drawing the attention away from the voice and Lane did them proud with careful, detailed handling.

Piers Lane’s next job was to play Elgar’s Violin Sonata with Douglas Beilman. This late piece, of the vintage of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and the String Quartet, demands warm and passionate playing and it flourished with Beilman’s flawless performance on his opulently-toned instrument and Lane’s fluent and commanding playing, from the dramatic to the feathery and lyrical. The thoroughly prepared, beautifully balanced partnership made it something of a revelation both to those familiar with it and to others.

In Brahms’s Second Piano Trio Lane was joined by Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten; the opening passage was magically subdued but there was full-blooded playing later in the movement and a sparkling, quirky Scherzo. For all Brahms’s alleged antipathy to the Romantics around him, this work proves he’s a fully paid-up composer of his age of high Romanticism.

The riches of the entire concert reinforced the disappointment that it had not attracted the full house that it deserved.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Bach by Candlelight

Cantatas, Solo violin sonata, Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582, Brandenburg Concerto No 6

Jenny Wollerman, Catrin Johnsson (sopranos), New Zealand String Quartet, Prazak Quartet, Martin and Victoria Jaenecke (violas), Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

Nelson Cathedral, Friday 30 January

The evening concert was held in the Cathedral: an all-Bach programme. The main draw was the appearance of two singers to perform cantatas. Four cantatas, each consisting in just one section and calling for one or two solo voices. The scoring was reduced in each case to a violin or viola plus continuo (Rolf Gjelsten’s cello and Douglas Mews on the harpsichord; in the case of the Cantata No 78, ‘Wir eilen’, Hiroshi Ikematsu added his plucked double bass to the continuo).

Three chamber pieces and an organ work were included n the programme. It began with the Sonata for Bass Viol in D, BWV1028, with the Prazak Quartet’s violist Josef Kluson who weighed in with a rather unbaroque density that was sometimes uncomfortable with Mews’s harpsichord.

Mews, on the cathedral organ, played the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582, a very fine performance indeed, careful of registrations and of the building’s acoustic. Though we were there primarily for the cantatas, this was a highlight. Brandenburg Concerto No 6 was also well done; it includes no violins and this performance used violists from the two string quartets plus the Nelson violists Martin and Victoria Jaenecke, cellist Rolf Gjelsten and Hiroshi Ikematsu (lending a most welcome weight and richness, even brilliance) and Mews on the harpsichord. I enjoyed this performance hugely.

The four cantatas might have been the centre-piece in terms of concert planning, and the singers, with well contrasted soprano and mezzo voices, each brought excellent qualities to these works. Johnsson’s voice has colour and interesting grain which she used astutely in Cantata 11 and in duet with Wollerman in Cantata 78.

Wollerman is singing better than ever, singing on her own in Cantatas 36 and 58; her voice is very attractive, with just enough character to lend proper discretion to these religious works. It is technically very secure, keenly focused and even in articulation throughout her range. No 58, ‘Wir eilen’, is a lively, secular-sounding cantata, in which the cello bow dances on the strings and Ikematsu’s double bass plucks its way joyously throughout.

The surprise of the evening was a musicological curiosity. Helene Pohl had been exploring a recent study by a musicologist specializing in numerology, whose calculations and consideration of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas has led to speculation that they were composed, in a sense, as elaborate accompaniments to certain chorale melodies. I let that pass; however, Pohl played, with remarkable accomplishment, the Solo violin sonata in A minor (BWV1003). A different chorale was pressed into service for each sonata movement and they did indeed fit together harmonically, creating the sort of spiritual feeling heard in Gorecki’s Third Symphony.

I heard one or two remarks about the violin’s dominance over the voices; that to me was the point, and not inappropriate, for the violin sonata was the essential element. It was an interesting game, the result of numerological studies to which Bach has long been subjected and in which he himself was believed to be interested.

The whole project was admittedly very speculative and I suspect might fall into the same class of ‘scholarship’ as the deniers of Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.

Blenheim concert by Piers Lane for Adam Chamber Music Festival

Piers Lane in Blenheim

Beethoven (Andante favori), Brahms (Piano Sonata Op 5), Chopin (Preludes Op 28)

Brancott Winery, Blenheim,

Thursday 29 January 2009

At lunchtime in the Nelson School of Music there was a charming recital from Swedish soprano Catrin Johnsson and New Zealand pianist Rachel Fuller in songs by Mozart, Sibelius, Stenhammer and from less-than-familiar Broadway sources.

The scene changed in the evening, with a 2-hour drive to the Montana Brancott Winery, out of Blenheim, for a 6.30pm recital of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin from pianist Piers Lane. Here the setting might have been a little too intimate for the good of the piano, a vintage Steinway that has been refurbished but whose somewhat uneven articulation was audible. The capacity of the recital room was suitable but the low ceiling provided very little space for the sound to expand. Thus we heard Lane under slightly less than perfect conditions.

What he played was unexceptionable. He began with Beethoven’s Andante favori (an early try at a slow movement for the Waldstein Sonata): piano album Beethoven if you like, but a well crafted and very attractive piece which Lane treated with rhythmic and dynamic subtlety.

Brahms Third Piano Sonata, his first great work, Op 5, was different; it demonstrate the rugged side of Brahms which is never far absent from most of his later output. It is not often included in concert programmes and is thus a true festival piece. Lane’s brief introduction for an audience not necessarily well-acquainted with the repertoire was well judged, and he thus felt justified in giving them a performance that made no concessions to the faint-hearted. The care he was able to take with the subtleties, both lyrical and rhetorical, was of course tempered by the shortcomings of the piano, but it did not affected in any real way the drama and tonal variety, the careful dynamic and tempo changes.

The second half was given over to Chopin’s complete 24 Preludes which were an even better opportunity to observe Lane’s poetic sensitivity, a myriad of colours and emotions, though the wayward action of the piano did cause unevenness in weight and regularity in fast runs and passagework.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Janacek (Quartet No 2 – The Kreutzer Sonata), Martinu (Quartet No 7), Dvorak (String Quintet, Op 97)

Prazak Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Wednesday 28 January

On the sixth day of the festival came the concert that many of the committed chamber music passionnées had most looked forward to. The superb Prazak Quartet had their own concert, and played music entirely from their homeland. It followed the pattern of all good concerts, with one very familiar, ravishingly beautiful work, one slightly less known but one which has attained masterpiece stature more recently, and a more modern but very accessible piece that scarcely anyone would know.

In the Cathedral again (this festival used the Cathedral more than previous festivals have), the quartet opened with Janacek’s first quartet, named The Kreutzer Sonata, because Janacek was moved by the fate of the heroine in Tolstoi’s novella. Many in Wellington will recall the intriguing theatrical adaptation of the story, presented at Bats Theatre early last year with the Nevine Quartet playing Janacek’s music,. There is a tendency to allow the character of the work to translate into somewhat harsh expression, with bows tugging violently on the strings.

These players approached it as if it was Beethoven or perhaps Dvorak, with tone that was rich and sensuous, not even allowing the anguished little motif that appears first on the cello to sound other than beautiful. They seemed to be telling the audience to find the emotion in the music itself and not by having it driven into their ears by the players’ insistent interpretations. It struck me as a lesson that composers who exploit the ugly extremes of instrumental sounds to depict anger, nastiness or tragedy might do well to think about.

The result was a performance that went to the heart, yet missed nothing of the complex emotions by which Janacek responded to the tragic tale with which he could so well identify. Martinu’s 7th String Quartet was composed just after the Second World War when he harboured the hope that he might be able to return from the United States to his country; it uses Czech-flavoured themes and reflects optimism.

That it is not a great work cannot be ascribed to the fact that it shuns the avant-garde styles of the time. There is vitality and melodic charm, especially in the second movement, but Martinu’s distinctive fingerprints are not as marked as usual. Its spirit flowed from his hopeful mood after the war and seems to have more in common with the early 19th century than with a century later. Regardless of its character, I cannot imagine a performance more persuasive than what we heard from the Prazak Quartet.

The Cathedral had fallen into darkness during the first half so that by the time Dvorak’s String Quintet, Op 97, began, the players were silhouetted in front of the back wall of the sanctuary, beautifully lit in deep blue. This is one of the two or three best-loved of Dvorak’s chamber music works, overflowing with rich melodies that evolve, interweave and relate to each other in the most engrossing way.

It is scored for two violas, like Mozart’s string quintets, and the violist of the New Zealand String Quartet, Gillian Ansell, took the other viola part. It meant that she played the striking opening phrase of the first movement and also that of the third movement. In fact, this piece gives unusually prominent and beautiful music to the two violas and cello, allowing those players especially to shine and to delight in the special richness afforded by an extra low instrument.

As far as one could tell from the point of view of a mere onlooker, Gillian’s rapport with her colleagues was warm and musically intimate and her contribution was beautifully integrated with that of the Czech players. It was a performance of unequalled splendour and intensity of an especially inspired work from one of the richest eras of music-making in history.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Schubert for all

Schubert’s String Quartet in G, D887

New Zealand String Quartet

St John’s Methodist Church, Tuesday 27 January

At 1pm the festival broke ground by presenting a free concert in St John’s Methodist Church and Nelson responded by filling it. It was no miscellany of pop classics: the New Zealand String quartet was determined to give the people the real thing, Schubert’s String Quartet in G, D887 – his last quartet and a piece that cellist Rolf Gjelsten, in his introductory comments, placed together with Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op 131, as the greatest masterpiece in the quartet repertoire. It’s a ranking I support, in spite of the popularity of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and A minor quartets.

It was a revelatory, emotionally powerful performance of the almost hour-long work that indeed illustrated the mixture of despair, anger, resignation and joy that Gjelsten had bid the audience to listen for.

Though free concerts can send out the wrong messages to the masses about professionalism and actual the costs of presenting good music, isolated and well-judged excursions can awaken to great music those whom it has somehow bypassed.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Trombones in the Cathedral

From Gabrieli and Bach to Sousa and Dave Dobbin

Bonanza: Trombone Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Tuesday 27 January

I should have known what to expect from the evening concert from the trombone quartet Bonanza – the name a creaky sort of pun. Though they’ve been around for 12 years, I had never heard them. I’m humbled.

To call their performance an illustrated historical survey of the trombone, would give no hint of what the evening was actually like. The reason for choosing the cathedral as the venue was at once obvious, for as the lights dimmed on this wet night without the sun gleaming through the west-facing stained glass, a spine-tingling canzona in 17th century Venetian style sounded from behind and the players became visible moving slowly up the side aisles. It was a sonata by Johann Schein, one of the three great German late Renaissance composers born almost exactly a century before Bach (the others were Scheidt and Schütz)..:

The effect was sheer delight; the audience’s wide smiles were audible. When they gained the dais, the four players took turns to enlighten us about their instruments noting their origin as ‘the romantically entitled sackbut’, played an arrangement of a brass Canzona by the great Venetian composer of at St Mark’s, Giovanni Gabrieli, while accounting for the survival of trombonists through the great Venetian plague if 1630 on account of their robust health.

The players embellished each piece with amusing pseudo-musicology. They wore period costume complete with white wigs, masks and embroidered tunics, which got modified as the decades rolled by. There followed a splendid arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, infinitely more successful than the famous Stokowski orchestration in its sheer brilliance.

Various reinterpretations of musical history followed as they discussed Mozart and the trombone parts in the ‘Tuba Mirum’ of the Requiem and in The Magic Flute. The trombone’s emergence in symphonic music – in the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony – and the torments of trombonists who sit silent through its first three movements led to a revision of the scoring of the first movement for trombone quartet.

Activities prescribed during the decadent 19th century for underemployed trombonists during such periods of idleness were revealed: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping. The players pointed to the greater professionalism of modern trombonists who now pursue more intellectual activities: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping.

Bruckner was the next candidate for biographical revision, with an account of his involvement in the re-interment of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s remains in the Central Cemetery in Vienna in 1888, leading to his lovely motet ‘Locus Iste’ – who needs singers? Surprisingly, their account neither of Royal Garden Blues, nor of the Washington Post March quite fulfilled one’s expectations of full-blooded New Orleans or arm-swinging Sousa.

But the subtle arrangement of ‘I Got Rhythm’ made the grade. And the concert ended with David Bremner’s arrangement of a New Zealand classic – Dave Dobbin’s ‘Slice of Heaven’, a certain dignity in the stylish, high-spirited performance. As encore they played a well-known piece by Meredith Willson, noting that they were 72 trombones short.

If you haven’t heard Bonanza, get a grip and seek them out even if it demands a serious detour ; they are brilliant entertainers as well as damn good musicians.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Flights of Fancy: music by Handel, Falla, Piazolla, Persichetti, De Castro Robinson, Grenfell, Andres, Fauré, Ravel, Ibert

Flight: Bridget Douglas (flute) and Carolyn Mills (harp)

Chanel Arts Centre, Motueka, Sunday 25 January

At 2pm a Family Concert entitled Animal Antics took place in the School of Music. It featured Carnival of the Animals and Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant, with accompaniment from four of New Zealand’s finest pianists – Michael Houstoun, Diedre Irons, Richard Mapp and Emma Sayers, and the narratives, Ogden Nash in the case of the Carnival, were spoken by Helen Moulder.

It clashed however with a concert at Motueka called Flights of Fancy, from Flight, the flute and harp duo of Bridget Douglas and Carolyn Mills: that’s what I chose. Reports of the Animals concert from those who’d been there made me regret being unable to spirit myself from Nelson to Motueka at 4pm.

Flights of Fancy met with a rather small audience, possibly because some people wonder if the two instruments can sustain their delight for two hours. The concert began with one of Handel’s flute sonatas, the harpsichord part nicely transferred to the harp.

The balance of the concert was slightly skewed however because an arm injury that has afflicted Carolyn Mills, stopped her playing one of the De Falla pieces, a piece by American, John Thomas, as well as Bach’s Flute Sonata in C. The rest of the programme consisted of fairly recent music, both New Zealand and foreign, plus a final set of three happy and familiar French pieces that left the audience content.

The unfamiliar pieces were chosen with a certain flair. Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Pearls of the Sea called for the novel sound of the bass flute, and for a variety of unorthodox sounds – glissandi, tapping the harp’s soundboard and the keys of the flute. Four Pooh Stories came from a second New Zealand composer, Maria Grenfell, again creating an original sound world that was often droll and perhaps trite but evocative of A A Milne.

Serenade No 10 by American composer Persichetti comprised eight very brief and very different movements that seemed to call for a visual programme of some kind. But I most enjoyed a suite of pieces by Bernard Andres called Narthex, depictions of stained glass in French churches of Cluny and Saint Lazare, with their evocation of medieval Christian imagery through clear, vivid melodies: refreshing, straightforward stuff…

Adam Chamber Music Festival,Nelson

Pianissimo: Piano Duos by Mozart, Bizet, Barber, Rachmaninov

Michel Houstoun, Diedre Irons, Richard Mapp, Emma Sayers

Nelson School of Music Sunday, 25 January

The evening concert was absolutely the essential stuff of a music festival; these performances, of great music, would have excited audiences at great European festivals like Verbier or La Roque d’Anthéron.

The Nelson audience was certainly conscious that it had witnessed something momentous as they clapped and shouted at the end of Rachmaninov’s long and strenuous Suite No 2 for two pianos, Op 17. Nothing could have been less apposite that the concert’s title, Pianissimo. I have sometimes wondered whether this dense and mighty work that emerges as if from one mighty instrument, would reveal more interesting interplay if the pianos were widely separated. The performance by Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons was monumental in its energy and power and in its near perfect ensemble; that alone is a singular achievement in such a piece.

Mozart’s Sonata in D for two pianos, K 448, which is also one of his great masterpieces, had opened the concert; it was played by Diedre Irons and Richard Mapp with Emma Sayers and Michael Houstoun in the humble role of page-turners. If the declamatory and extrovert outer movements were witness to Mozart’s self-confidence and his powerful creativity, the mature and profound slow movement was not only impressive in its unanimity and singular ensemble, but deeply felt, suggesting long gestation on the part of the players.

The concert was given a special quality through the use of projections from above of the players at the two keyboards on to screens at the back of the stage. Without distracting attention from the music, the images seemed to provide an insight into the sensuous intimacy that the strange phenomenon of the piano duet offers.

Nowhere was this slightly intrusive insight more delightful than the performance by Mapp and Sayers of Samuel Barber’s duet, Souvenirs, Op 28, involving a great deal of overlapping of hands, one often on top of the other or chasing each other the length of the keyboard.

Perhaps the most delicious, and to many, surprising piece was Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, every bit as serious music as Mozart or Schumann. This was at the hands of Michael and Diedre at one keyboard and they revealed the uncelebrated genius of Bizet as piano composer. For Bizet’s death at 35 (the same age as Mozart) was a terrible loss not just to opera, but to piano and orchestral music, and probably chamber music too. The music itself is filled with spontaneity and rich invention, but it needs a joyous and boisterous performance such as we heard here to demonstrate just how fecund was Bizet’s melodic imagination and his sense of shape and style.

The following evening (26 January) the same pianists returned for more; this time the emphasis was on aural spectacle, some, like Mark Wilberg’s Fantasy on Themes from Carmen frankly vacuous pyrotechnics, others – Saint-Saëns’s Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (from the Trio of Sonata Op 31 No 2) and Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini of some musical worth. John Rimmer’s Hammerheads, a 2008 work commissioned for four talented young Nelson pianists, was frankly astonishing.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

The Saturday Clash

Concertante: Clarinet Quintet (Anthony Ritchie), String Trio (Jindrich Feld), Caligraphy (Edward Ware), Sonata for flute, viola and harp (Debussy), Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, for violin and viola, K 364 (Mozart) 

New Zealand String Quartet; Prazak Quartet; Bridget Douglas and Carolyn Mills (Flight); Philip Green (clarinet)

Nelson Cathedral, Saturday 24 January

The festival’s second concert was blighted by the sort of misadventure that is familiar in a big city but ought not to happen in Nelson.

A major clash.

The Sealord Opera in the Park has been a major fixture in February each year for more than a decade. This time it moved, reportedly on account of the availability of certain singers, to Saturday 24 January, and thousands filled Trafalgar Park .It must have impacted on the size of the audience in the Cathedral: a great pity, for this was an exceptional concert.

Again, it employed both string quartets as well as the three other instrumentalists, in music that is almost never played in ordinary chamber music concerts. New music of an engaging character was again prominent.

First was a Clarinet Quintet (Op 124, no less!) by Anthony Ritchie, written for Christchurch arts patron Christopher Marshall in 2006: this was its third performance. If there were few reminders of its predecessors by Mozart and Brahms, there was a comparable sense of musical inevitability, of a composition that has arisen from genuine musical impulses rather than non-musical ideas, concepts, technical considerations. It feels as if conceived in purely music terms in large bites, with a structure that suggested a strong sense of shape, giving no impression of note-spinning or routine passage-work.

Clarinettist Philip Green opened with playing that was remote, disembodied, suddenly displaced by ethereal string harmonics, and players of the New Zealand String Quartet then entered, leading without pause to an Allegro energico: sanguine, jazzy, very grounded and carrying hints of the famous Clarinet Concertino by Ritchie’s father, John. The slow movement employed a quotation from Ritchie’s opera, The God Boy, first on the clarinet, expressing anxiety according to the programme notes.

The Prazak Quartet then played, without second violinist, a String Trio by Jindrich Feld, a Czech composer who died in 2007. This work supports one’s impression that mainstream music has largely broken free of the complex, the intellectual, the disdaining of melody or delight that blighted it through the mid and late 20th century. An unpretentious piece in four pithy, engaging movements, with hints of Martinu in the second movement, motoric quavers expressing an optimistic mood in the last movement.

The third contemporary piece was Caligraphy for solo cello by Wellington-born composer Edward Ware, now living in Barcelona. This too held no terrors either for the audience or for cellist Rolf Gjelsten who gave it a compelling performance. The music’s idiom might have been of the 19th century, but by the end, there was no doubt that it was essentially closer in spirit to Bach.

The third of Debussy’s wartime sonatas, and the last to be completed, is for flute, viola and harp. Harpist Carolyn Mills confessed that it was her favourite piece for her instrument, and that was clear. I am less moved by Debussy’s big orchestral works than by his chamber and piano music and songs; and these players (Gillian Ansell was the violist) made it easy to be convinced by this sonata’s unique flavour and sonorities, its undiminished musical inspiration.

And the concert ended with a novelty: an arrangement published in 1817 for string sextet of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. No great violence was done to its character.

The sextet comprised both string quartets minus the two second violinists; the front desks were occupied by violinist Vaclav Remes and violist Josef Kluson, but they by no means dominated the solo parts. The orchestral parts are compressed to single string parts and the solo parts distributed among the other players, often the cellist instead of the violist.

Especially for anyone new to it, it sounded authentic, for the greatness of the work easily survives this sort of sympathetic treatment. My first exposure to it, aged round 20, was from a recording from the Casals Festival of 1951 at Perpignan, with soloists Isaac Stern and William Primrose. Ever since, most performances fall short. I was enchanted by this performance however, in spite of certain ensemble looseness, and had no problem with the reallocation of some of the music even though the solo passages hardly matched that ideal performance that resides in my soul.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Gala Opening Concert

Telemann: Concerto for four violins; String quartet (Michael Norris); Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet;  Smetana: String Quartet, ‘From my life’

New Zealand String Quartet; Prazak Quartet; Bridget Douglas (flute) and Carolyn Mills (harp); Philip Green (clarinet)

Nelson Cathedral, Friday 23 January

The Festival’s Gala opening concert took place, as usual, in the Nelson Cathedral, a strangely incomplete building, its primitive Gothic arches seeming to announce a much larger and more massive building; but above the arches, when money ran out, there is an incongruous ceiling, and walls of concrete blocks and an unsympathetic spire.

However, its acoustic properties are simply superb for singers and small ensembles; and the back wall of the sanctuary, painted deep blue and lit attractively, often provided an atmosphere that suited music as dusk fell on the long summer evenings. . This concert introduced both the New Zealand and the Prazak string quartets, as well as three other musicians. The result was perhaps an unusual programme but one which proved highly rewarding.

The ‘other’ musicians, from the NZSO, and the NZSQ, allowed the performance of Ravel’s enchanting Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Carolyn Mills took centre stage with the harp; while the piece may be a miniature harp concerto, the two wind instruments (Bridget Douglas – flute and Philip Green – clarinet), virtuosic and shrouded in subtle chiaroscuro, acted as if they were facets of the one instrument, and the strings too created sonorities that were haunting and ethereal. It was an experience that comes to you live perhaps once in a life-time.

Bridget opened the second part of the concert with a particularly seductive account of Debussy’s Syrinx. In retrospect, the opening piece, a concerto for four violins by Telemann, was incongruous. Though it opens with an enchanting, delicate Grave movement, the rest didn’t fulfill its promise, ending in a rather vapid, inconsequential Vivace.

Nothing could have been as remote from the Telemann as the premiere of a piece by Wellington composer Michael Norris. Commissioned and played by the NZSQ, his String Quartet is inspired by the treatment of death by four distinct cultures that offered scope for contrasting moods and a radical catalogue of ‘extended string techniques’.These included a first movement based entirely on harmonics and a third movement with extensive sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge).

In Niflheim, its 3rd movement, Rolf Gjelsten’s left-hand fingers climbed so close to the cello’s bridge that one marveled that there was still space for the bow. The piece seemed to want to stop with the stark silence at the end of that movement, but as the fourth evolved it seemed to amend one’s impression of the architecture of the whole. While its structure and many of its ideas were musical, the piece suffers, like so much of today’s music, from the weight and expectations of its programme and its intellectual paraphernalia.

The centre of the concert came at the end with the Prazak playing the quartet From My Life by their compatriot Smetana. My attention passed from one player to another, each time with the feeling that here was the heart of the music. Yet the combination was so flawless and homogeneous, so richly opulent and so filled with the spirit of the composer’s life story, from joyousness to tragedy, that I felt that I had heard finally the perfect, never to be equalled performance.