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.

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