Jack Liebeck and Stephen De Pledge at Upper Hutt

Violin Sonata, Op 24 ‘Spring’ (Beethoven); Sonata No 1 in E (Howells); Sonata No 2 in A, Op 100 (Brahms); Sonata in E, Op 82 (Elgar)

Jack Liebeck (violin) and Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt. Monday 21 September

Chamber Music New Zealand have been promoting solo piano recitals by Stephen De Pledge, in their main concert series in the major centres, and violin and piano recitals involving De Pledge and English violinist Jack Liebeck in a series of concerts for the so-called ‘associated societies’ that exist in smaller centres.

When the tours were published I wondered why this arrangement had been decided upon in the light of the kind of attention Liebeck has been getting in concerts and recordings in Britain and elsewhere.

Fortunately, the proliferation of chamber music organizations in Greater Wellington makes it easy to enjoy both the piano alone (at the Wellington Town Hall and at Waikanae) and the duo at Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt where different programmes were being presented.

At Upper Hutt the emphasis was on English violin music, with an unfamiliar sonata by Herbert Howells and a somewhat better known sonata by Elgar. Before they began the Howells, Liebeck said a few words about his awakening to English music, and his keen advocacy of it was clear.

The Howells sonata has four connected parts that hardly follow the classical pattern. The opening movement spoke with a rather English voice, to be sure, in reflective elegiac tones which soon turned more lively, though hardly suggesting emotions that would have upset Victorian England (it was composed, I must point, out durng World War I). In the second movement the pace slowed again and my reaction was both to wonder at the insight shown by both musicians and their rapport, and to regret the absence of an anchor in the form of a melody or two.

The music evolved again, rather than making a distinct change, by means of emphatic piano chords into a third movement with rudiments of a dance-like tune. A fourth movement, assai tranquillo, seemed to be the composer’s most natural form of expression for it was here at last that there was a oneness between the music and the spirit of the two players.

I had heard Elgar’s violin sonata a few months ago played by a couple of local musicians; I did not know it well at that stage, and it remained something of an enigma. But in the hands of these two, it emerged as a work of considerable stature, a variety of moods and styles that Liebeck and De Pledge commanded with great conviction, both in the opening flourishes and as it settled into an attractive lyrical character and clearly structured shapes.

The first movement ended with a fine sense of power and authority. The last movement was coloured in the early stages by an ‘English light music’ quality that I find uninteresting, and its conclusion seemed to fall short in a sense of resolution and grandeur. It was the second movement with its two very distinct parts that I found most persuasive as the players exploited it melodic strengths and here, in its gorgeous muted tones, I was conscious of being in the presence of a considerable violin talent.

The other two works were familiar. Beethoven’s Spring Sonata was a delightful start to the concert, demonstrating the violin’s elegance and lyricism and the pianist’s flair for turning phrases in ear-catching ways, pointing to features and emphases that seemed somehow new.

The least interesting, most surprisingly, was Brahms Second Sonata. It was entirely flawless and unexceptionable, but perhaps as a result of the context, it seeming of rather less stature that it actually possesses, the last movement failing to rise to a finale of much consequence.

However, in spite of what was probably a personal response on my part, nothing detracted from the impact of this very fine artist, and enjoyment of the rapport that was always evident between the two musicians.

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