Diedre Irons and Zephyr blow through Wellington Town Hall

Quintet in E flat, Op 16 (Beethoven), Wind Quintet, Op 142 (Ritchie), Opus Number Zoo (Berio), Sextet for piano and winds (Poulenc)

Chamber Music New Zealand: Zephyr (Bridget Douglas – flute, Philip Green – clarinet, Robert Orr – oboe, Robert Weeks – bassoon, Edward Allen – horn) and Diedre Irons – piano.

Wellington Town Hall, Monday 6 July 2009

New Zealand audiences still seem paralysed, when it comes to the arts, by an inferiority complex towards foreign performers; and additionally, for chamber music aficionados, by a fixation with the string quartet as the only form worth troubling with.


Despite this double handicap, there was a good audience in the Town Hall for a group of world-class NZSO principals plus one of our finest pianists, a group effectively indistinguishable from a number of world-famous chamber ensembles.

The unhappy few who stayed away missed a delightful, entertaining concert.

The Beethoven quintet for piano and winds, modeled closely on the work that Mozart considered his finest creation to date, may not be the equal of his late quartets or piano sonatas, but the scrupulous care with which pianist Diedre Irons and clarinettist Philip Green pronounced the first notes, exquisitely slowly, demonstrated their own reverence for the music. This beautifully paced introduction led to the Allegro which they also took at a pace that allowed its beguiling simplicity to be heard as the small masterpiece it is.

The second movement is one of those pieces that seems playable by a young Grade II student, but whose beauties are only fully revealed by a pianist of this accomplishment, and later by the others, in particular a long episode by Robert Weeks on the bassoon. It was a performance whose understated, gently paced character fully exposed this lovely work’s warmth and poetry.

Zephyr commissioned Anthony Ritchie to write the wind quintet which this tour, starting in Invercargill, premiered. Year by year Ritchie’s music has gained in self-confidence, in its handling of familiar forms, patterns and harmonic means, and he invariably writes music that is individual, arresting and beautiful. Attention to the visual or narrative origins of music can be misleading as an approach to ‘understanding’, but Ritchie’s own rather detailed programme reflecting both New Zealand poems and landscapes was there to read. I took care not to read it before listening, but these were indeed the sort of images that arose in my mind, though the folk song, By the Dry Cardrona, had escaped me. Ritchie’s notes were interesting only in an abstract way; for me Copland was glimpsed through the trees and flute sounds suggested Debussy; but these were not influences, let alone borrowings. Though the sounds were complex in themselves, expressed in interestingly shifting tonalities, they made music that was his own and sounded as if it had been conceived as a coherent whole

Opus Number Zoo by Luciano Berio was one of those pieces perhaps inspired by the likes of Peter and the Wolf andBabar the Elephant; each player took turns speaking the little animal fables – and Bridget Douglas’s and Robert Orr’s lines were particularly effective. The words were sardonic and cautionary, momentarily amusing (if I’d been able to catch the words), set to music that suggested Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale perhaps – which was mocking and often a clever continuation of the words just uttered; the players extracted all the wit and irreverence to be found in the music which in the end, I have to confess, lacked the substance of a work such as Prokofiev’s.

Poulenc’s Sextet, from the 1930s, was an entirely different matter. A splendid start demands: ‘Look here!’ and the instruments then enter as if the room suddenly fills with a crown of lively chattering party-goers. But the variously sober or sentimental phases are just as entertaining, as Poulenc shows how happy music – written in the depths of the 1930s depression – still has a place in the modern world. It is light music in a sense (like the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro), but cast in unconventional shapes; full of wit, character, colour and brilliantly scored for the instruments, particularly the piano part which Diedre Irons played with such strength and insouciance. The audience clapped long enough to win a repeat of a section of the Poulenc second movement.

(A revision and expansion of the abbreviated review in The Dominion Post)

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