Amalia Hall and John-Paul Muir impress Ilott Theatre audience

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 1 in D, Op 12 No 1; Ravel: Tsigane, rapsodie de concert; Sarasate: Two Spanish Dances; Fauré: Violin Sonata No 1 in A, Op 13

Amalia Hall (violin) and John-Paul Muir (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Sunday 16 August 2009

It is a little disturbing that the sort of concerts that the Wellington Chamber Music Society particularly wanted to promote when their fine Sunday afternoon series began in 1983, concerts by young musicians, the likely stars of tomorrow who needed encouragement today, seem to attract smaller audiences.

Audience numbers were down on expectations and down on the crowd who came to hear John Chen and the T’ang Quartet a fortnight before.

No excuse could be found in fine weather, and there are always many other concerts competing for our time and money, though no direct clashes that day. Nor was there any reason to scorn the programme just because it included Sarasate, who is much more than a mere encore composer, and a famous piece of fireworks by Ravel: both are works of genius that proved excellent punctuation points in an attractive programme.

The hundred who weren’t there simply missed a recital of great delight, of music that is central to the violin repertoire and rewarding it its own right.

Beethoven’s first violin sonata is the work of a composer who was fully fledged, naturally drawing on the examples of Haydn and Mozart but already in a voice that was identifiably his own. Though there were occasional inconsequential smudges in the piano part, much more remarkable were the pianist’s vivacity and easy accommodation to the dynamic shading that the violin took such pains to achieve. The two demonstrated right from the start how well they had learned the lessons of chamber music playing, attention to the other player that calls for instantaneous sympathetic reaction.

So the two instruments seemed to be instinctively in balance, in full rapport.

Ravel’s Tsigane cannot be dismissed as no more than a flashy show-piece; it is a remarkable composition that could only have been penned by a great composer. And for sure, it is a pretty formidable challenge to (both) players. The piano part is a splendid homage to Liszt while the violin reflects the qualities of Wieniawski and Sarasate, and this was an exciting, totally commanding performance.

The two Spanish Dances, not identified in the programme, were the familiar ones, probably the Malagueña and Habanera of Op 21, which combine melodic and rhythmic charm and brilliance with musical value, products of a highly trained and talented composer of the era of Dvorak, Grieg and Fauré (to name three disparate contemporaries). Their playing was infectious, and one would rather liked to have heard a couple of the other Spanish dances that he wrote.

Fauré himself ended the concert: the first of his two violin sonatas written, like the Beethoven, before he was 30. The programme note quoted a perceptive and generous critique by Saint-Saëns, ten years his senior, from the first performance. It is hard to go past his description of it as combining “a profound musical knowledge and great melodic wealth, with a kind of naïveté that is irresistible;” describing its “delicacy and charm, novelty of form, resourceful modulations, unusual sonorities and unexpected rhythms. Over all,” it continued, “hovers an allure that envelopes the entire work and makes the most unanticipated touches of boldness seem natural.”

This performance delighted in all these qualities, revealing two players who, perhaps because they are young, could respond with spontaneity and gaiety, without affectation, to the originality and youthful confidence of the young Fauré.

Have ‘cello, will travel – Mok-hyun Gibson-Lane

Works by George Crumb, Boccherini, Halvorsen, Beethoven and Chopin
Mok-hyun Gibson-Lane (‘cello)
Vesa-Matti Leppanen (violin) / Catherine McKay (piano)

Central Baptist Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 16th August, 2009

Mok-hyun Gibson-Lane is currently based in Berlin, where she plays ‘cello as a contract musician with the Berlin Staatskapelle (whose musical director is Daniel Barenboim). She is also a member of the Stabrawa Ensemble Berlin, led by the Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa. Recently she took time out from her European commitments to come back home to New Zealand for a visit, and give a recital in Wellington with pianist Catherine McKay and violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen.

Moky, as she’s widely known, has studied with a number of eminent musicians, among them Lyn Harrell at Rice University in Texas, Alexander Ivaskin at Canterbury University and Rolf Gjelsten of the NZ String Quartet in Wellington. She has won numerous awards, among them the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award and the Barbara Finlayson Scholarship. A glance at her list of career achievements thus far would indicate that she’s certainly made the most of her opportunities; and her playing throughout this concert confirmed that she’s a highly gifted and totally committed musician.

Her recital programme, extending from Boccherini to George Crumb, and including a mixture of original ‘cello works and transcriptions for the instrument, indicated something of the range and scope of her interpretative sympathies. The opening work, a sonata for solo ’cello by Crumb widened my appreciation of a composer chiefly known for his iconic work “Ancient Voices of Children”. The sonata’s first movement, a Fantasia, used pizzicato and arco passages in the manner of a troubadour telling a story, the dialogue becoming more and more insistent and intense as the telling reached its climax. The second movement was a “theme and variations”, featuring episodes containing different moods and contrasts, most memorably some excitingly full-blooded pizzicati chords put next to delicately-spread figurations. Lastly, in the final Toccata Mok-hyun threw down the gauntlet at the beginning with strong and monumental double-stopping, which gave way to toccata-like figurations and a contrasting running triplet theme, played by the ‘cellist with terrific élan, before finishing the performance as it began, with a forthright,well-focused statement of serious intent.

For a long time the word I most readily associated with  Luigi Boccherini was “minuet” –  so the composer’s Sonata No.3 in G for ‘cello and continuo caused something of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, and all the more so in Mok-Hyun’s and pianist Catherine McKay’s hands. The opening allegro militaire was a jolly jog-trot at the outset, with the minor key development section both sappy and mock-sombre, relieved by the players’ charming and stylish way with balancing both the music’s rhythmic and lyrical qualities. A limpid Largo followed, with Catherine McKay’s piano-playing artfully matching and mirroring the ‘cellist’s limpid textures; while the finale’s kind of “rocking-horse minuet” rhythms nicely enlivened things, the players both demonstrating that they knew the secret of generating momentum without resorting to excessive speed. Before the interval we were treated to something of a curiosity in both music and performance, Halvorsen’s impassioned meditation on Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No.7 in G minor – a Passacaglia Duo, no less, for violin and ‘cello, here brilliantly played by Mok-hyun and Vesa-Matti Leppanen (violin), bringing out both the piece’s fireworks and the more circumspect moods, the writing allowing the musicians to play satisfyingly into each others’ hands.

The second half featured music by Beethoven and Chopin, the first item being a particularly lovely and penetrative exploration by the former for ‘cello and piano of Mozart’s Bei Mannern, Welche Liebe Fuhlen duo from Die Zauberflöte. While Mok-hyun’s playing wasn’t entirely blemish-free in some of the more virtuosic moments, there was no doubting the stylish character and depth of feeling of her playing, both musicians  relishing the contrasts of the variations as well as the dance-like conclusion to the work. Cellist and pianist were again a combination to be reckoned with in Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante Op.3 (wrongly labelled Op.8 in the programme), the opening’s big, lyrical flourishes from the piano answered with eloquent simplicity by the ‘cello, while the Polonaise itself was danced with a winning amalgam of rhythmic girth and lyrical expression, Mok-hyun risking all by fearlessly attacking the melismatic figurations that punctuated the ‘cello line, and Catherine McKay in turn providing the required rhythmic drive and pointed phrasing that helped give the performance its ardent romantic flavour.