Michael Houstoun and Friends delight at Waikanae


Piano Quartet No 2 in A, Op 26 (Brahms), Piano Quartet (Schnittke), Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 15 (Fauré)

Michael Houstoun – piano, Wilma Smith – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Ashley Brown – cello 

Memorial Hall, Waikanae, Sunday 28 June


I gather that the impulse for this happy ensemble came from the Waikanae Music Society, and that its creation inspired other concert promoters to invite them to perform: the Wairarapa Music Group and Expressions Arts Centre in Upper Hutt. Wilma Smith, the first leader of the New Zealand String Quartet and now co-concert master of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Gillian Ansell, her original quartet colleague – first second violinist, then violist in the quartet, and Ashley Brown, principal cello of the Auckland Philharmonia and cellist in the New Zealand Trio; and of course Michael Houstoun himself who needs no introduction. 

The second of Brahms’s two piano quartets, written in his twenties, is longer and less seductive (superficially anyway) than the first, even though it is in the happy key of A major. The performance itself expressed a warm unanimity of feeling and sensibility, as if the four had played together for many years (most of them had, though not continuously). The atmosphere they generated had a surprisingly intimate, domestic air, as if they were playing in a much smaller venue than the vast sports hall in which these concerts take place (it was needed for this concert that attracted over 500).

Where I was sitting, there was no reverberation at all, and I missed that a little, for the Brahms would have flourished better with a more opulent, spacious sound. The first movement was calm, capturing the vacillating emotions that the main theme suggests, though it didn’t provide the cello with as interesting a part as one might have expected in certain passages. Houstoun took full stock of the bold piano-led theme that comes unexpectedly in the middle of the Poco Adagio which slowly subsided into a more intimate phase with a richly harmonised, rhapsodic episode; it was the most beguiling of the four movements. There were a few blemishes in the dense piano octaves in the Scherzo and though the quartet captured the headlong, rhythmic, mid-sentence beginning of the Finale there were a few flaws here too.

Nevertheless, it was a very fine and persuasive performance of a piece that should be better known.

The Schnittke quartet was what one expects of him: it is not everyone’s taste, even for the adventurous, with its feeling of determined chaos tangling unnaturally (in my view at least) with short snatches of familiar music – here a theme from Mahler’s youthful piano quartet, hardly very familiar anyway. The performance defied any real possibility of judging its technical accuracy, for its demands were ferocious and just a little outlandish for all players and the energy and commitment with which these thoroughly rehearsed musicians tackled it left, to say the least, a feeling of total accomplishment, even triumph.

Fauré’s first piano quartet is one of the most charming in the repertoire. Here, the players’ skills were not subjected to such technically taxing music, but to the perhaps more rewarding challenge of creating from the most attractive and essential resources of the instruments, the most beguiling, beautiful music. So perfect was their unity of conception, that it was as if one mind was guiding all four players, through the muted trio section of the Scherzo, through the gentle, elegiac mood of the Adagio; as if the player were playing for each other before they were even thinking about the wider audience.

That is the essence of chamber music: an intimate communion among friends. The last movement reinforced all the virtues that had been audible earlier, the exquisitely judged rubato, wonderfully natural rise and fall of dynamics, but exercised on music of even more unpretentious beauty than they had available to them in the earlier pieces.


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