Cook Strait Trio in full sail

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

The Cook Strait Trio (Blythe Press – violin, Paul van Houtte – cello, Amber Rainey – piano)

Turina: Piano Trio No 2 in B minor, Op76, Psathas: Island Songs, Dvořák: Piano Trio in F minor, Op 65

Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Thursday 30 July 2009

The Cook Strait Trio is just the kind of chamber music group that one hopes and expects Chamber Music New Zealand will promote in its Associated Societies series. That is, the mainly New Zealand groups that it takes under its wing to tour to the score of smaller chamber music societies that flourish – or least survive – in the towns that do not sustain concerts in the so-called Celebrity Series.

Just to remind you of the societies drawing on at least some of the groups in CMNZ’s stable that exist in Greater Wellington – the Waikanae Music Society, Chamber Music Hutt Valley and the Wellington Chamber Music Society (which, for promotional purposes, now drops the word ‘society’). This group had performed this programme at Waikanae on Sunday 26 July.

The three are Wellington-born and/or educated, though it would probably be risky to claim they will long remain working here. Only Amber Rainey has yet to undertake overseas training.

One longs to discover neglected works that prove substantial and beautiful and it was so with the Turina. He is the fourth of the notable Spanish composers born in the 30 years after 1860 and the least known and perhaps least important. Once upon a time his Canto a Sevilla was popular on account of Victoria de los Angeles’ performance.

Though it was most sympathetically played, this trio did not prove more than an agreeable salon piece of a superior kind. That generalization derives from the tone of the music rather than its formal structure which is sophisticated enough, as pointed out in the programme notes. The Spanish character of the music is not of the usual, strongly rhythmic kind, but derived from the more subtle kind of folk music that does fling itself at you. Its besetting sin perhaps is Turina’s excessive use of diminished harmonies that tend to impose a tonal anonymity on the music. The last movement revealed a stronger character, mainly through its piano part, spendidly played by Amber Rainey.

John Psathas’s Island Songs, now 14 years old, has by now attained the rank of a New Zealand classic. The islands are of Greece – not of New Zealand. However, the music, while carrying occasional suggestions of Greek land and seascapes, and sound such as bells chiming in the piano, does not evoke a conventional sound impression of Greece.

In the first movement, the piano underpinned the strings with ostinati reminiscent of Psathas’s early Waiting for the Aeroplane and he surprises those whose knowledge of Greek music is confined to Theodorakis’s music for Zorba and the bouzouki, with the sparest writing to depict the Zeibekiko in the second movement. In the third movement the piano, again moving through a narrow range of pitches, was a little out of step with its colleagues. 

Dvořák’s Piano Trio Op 65 has received some high praise. Some consider it his finest chamber work, but the competition from the Piano Quintet, and the Dumky Trio, the Quintet Op 97, and the American Quartet would seem to be quite strong.

To start with, it is as markedly Czech as one feels the Turina not to be so Spanish. That feeling might stem from its serious, minor key character in the first movement which is announced by the opening unison passage from violin and cello. However, there is a graciousness in the music which Blythe Press’s violin, in particular, caught beautifully, as he did again in the charming slow movement. The strong instruments here were the piano and violin which often tended to cast a shadow over the cello though it enjoyed some lovely solos early in the first movement, leaving no doubt about Paul van Houtte’s musicality.  

There was a certain loss of momentum in the middle section of the second movement: it felt rather more than the Meno mosso marking called for. Perhaps the trio offered the best of themselves through the fusing of their sounds in the Poco adagio, achieving a beautiful stillness at the movement’s end. In the last movement, they handled the many changes of rhythm with great naturalness engaging overdrive excitingly for the final peroration.


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