T’ang Quartet and John Chen in fine concert at the Ilott

Wellington Chamber Music Society concert

Schnittke: Quintet for piano and strings, Gao Ping: Piano Quintet, Dvořák: Piano Quintet No 2 in A, Op 81

T’ang Quartet (Wilma Smith and Ang Chek Meng – violins, Han Oh – viola, Leslie Tan – cello) and John Chen (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Sunday 2 August 2009

Though it is fair to say that Wellington’s taste for new music is probably more adventurous than that of other major cities, it may well have been the pulling power of musicians of such distinction as these that attracted an around 80 percent audience to a programme containing two contemporary works, one newly commissioned and the other probably unfamiliar to 95 percent of the audience.

There were two changes in the quartet’s personnel for this tour. The regular leader, Ng Yu-Ying, was replaced by Wilma Smith and violist Lionel Tan by Han Oh.

Schnittke can hardly be described in terms of other composers of his generation, except in fairly general and unhelpful ways. One might be to say music of the time this piece was composed – the mid 1970s – was still heavily in thrall to the avant-garde, with its conviction that the widening gap between composers and audiences was the latter’s problem. Some of it, from composers of genuine genius, has gained a place in our auditory hard-drive, some has disappeared without trace, while some cling to a raft becoming crowded with more interesting and congenial makers of music of recent years, but may survive:

I think Schnittke is in this last class. While there is a core of music lovers sympathetic to his music on account of his personal situation vis a vis the Soviet Union and his persistent ill-health, there are as many who are sceptical of his aesthetic and the validity of his musical impulses.

This piano quintet, however, seems to spring from a genuine creative inspiration, with less of the trade-mark poly-stylism that strikes many as a gimmick or as a way of masking a lack of melodic invention. It clearly describes a time of personal loss through its spare, bleak textures, long-sustained single notes, the emptiness of the mocking waltz of the second movement, the Andante with its microtones laced with little glissandi, finally closing in a mood of timid hope. John Chen’s role was conspicuously in command of the piano’s striking, sometimes eccentric contribution; the string players clearly understood its emotions and the musical means by which they were expressed, eventually finding some kind of peace in the last movement.

Gao Ping’s piece was commissioned by the Christchurch Arts Festival where it was played, in fact, the day after the Wellington performance.

A piece rather more typical of the current musical climate, music that does not sound so disturbed; in fact, presenting a sunny scene, Though each of the four movements is some sort of reflection on the four qualities that are significant in ancient Chinese literary life, efforts to bear them in mind through the performance seemed superfluous, even irrelevant.

The flow of the music and the rewarding writing for individual instruments, the cello in particular in the third part (Bamboo), made any concerns with non-musical ideas fade away. In the last section, the viola (Han Oh, seemingly perfectly in accord with his colleagues) took charge of a beguiling tune that, teasingly, refrained from evolving as it wanted to. Leader Wilma Smith was notably comfortable in the quartet, in this work, capturing the tone of the Chinese violin, such as the erhu, idiomatically.

The second piano quintet by Dvořák is one of the most loved in the repertoire. Its hearing does, unfortunately, prompt the question in the mind, ‘why is it not possible for today’s composers, some of whom must be comparably gifted with melodic fecundity, to write such music built on beautiful melody that is worked out with such impulsive delight’.

Wilma Smith again sounded in full command of the piece, responding to the style of her colleagues with great warmth; and cellist Leslie Tan took full advantage of his opportunities both at the start of the first movement and the passages of lovely, sustained lyricism in the second movement. Though John Chen was very much a star of the concert, his fluent and interesting playing never drew attention to itself even though one’s ear was constantly enchanted by his perfectly judged role, and contributed to a wonderful unity of spirit through the joyful Finale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *