A great concert from the Borodin Quartet


(The New Zealand International Arts Festival and Chamber Music New Zealand)

String Quartets: No 2 in D (Borodin), No 8 in C minor, Op 110 (Shostakovich), No 1 in D, Op 1 (Tchaikovsky)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 6 March 2010, 7.30pm 

Occupying one of just two chamber music concerts in evening slots in the Festival, this superb group was co-promoted by Chamber Music New Zealand and, as far as the Festival is concerned, may well not have contributed to visitors coming from other parts of the country since the Borodin Quartet is touring all ten centers in which CMNZ performs. There was a full house, in any case.

Their all-Russian programme might not have been very adventurous but the pieces are undoubtedly among the greatest in the repertory.

The first thing that struck me was the feeling of ease and the absence of any ferocious intensity, even in the Shostakovich. The players have not given in to increasingly common habit of adopting casual, stylish clothes and refrain from speaking to the audience (nothing wrong with either of those, let me add). Instead, they simply did their work in the traditional manner, with the clear aim of removing their own individual personalities from the stage and giving the limelight to the music.

They might have played Borodin’s warm-hearted, beautiful second quartet five hundred times but that has not led to anything perfunctory in their approach; one’s attention turned to each player as solo passages arrived, wondering at the intimacy and finesse produced in the famous Nocturne and the effortless fast passagework by the two violins in the last movement, for example, that contributed to the air of delight that enveloped the audience.

Though I must express a slight regret that Shostakovich’s eighth quartet gets played almost to the exclusion of any of the others, most of which are fine works, this was a performance to treasure, as much for its restraint and the group’s determination, again, to dwell on the music’s beauty rather than to highlight the underlying anger and torment that the composer transforms into art. Its darkness, the signature sardonic quality of much of his music, its uneasiness and its cynical gaiety were all there: the group adheres to what I believe is the proper function of art – not to thrust horrors, perversions and ugliness at us but to universalize the nasty or tragic realities of life into shapes and sounds that employ ambiguity, symbolism and suggestion to evoke sympathetic response but that do not repel through literalness and crudity. The three awful down-strokes that return were never ugly, and the emotion was far better expressed through their restraint and beauty.

Tchaikovsky’s first quartet which, like the Borodin, contains one of the most popular and beautiful slow movements filled the second half. Its gentle, even rhythm and the limited range of pitches slowly generated excitement, creating an almost orchestral texture from Tchaikovsky’s skilled composition. The Andante Cantabile revealed again the players’ approach to such music; the shifts from note to note were utterly imperceptible, involving no glissandi, no stop and start; their legato character was immaculate. In the Scherzo the first violin’s febrile, almost bell-like tone turned the music into a spirited dance without motion; nothing bold or too emphatic was necessary to create its atmosphere. I admired the slide into pianissimo and the guileless, un-heralded end.

It was heartening to see the sold-out Town Hall and to think that far more than the normal number of people might have gone home with some inkling of what truly great music making is.

New Zealand Trio in excerpts for the Festival

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Music by Beethoven, Ross Edwards, Dvorak, Chen Yi, Ravel, Phil Dadson. David Downes

New Zealand Trio: Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 6 March 2010, 4pm 

(With a contribution from Peter Mechen)

The juxtaposition of single movements from orthodox piano trios and two New Zealand pieces that set music against images was an unusual idea, and one that ran a serious risk of puzzling many of the audience.

To present a concert of single movements risks automatic disapproval by most regular concert-goers and those at all familiar with classical music and its playing traditions. This suggested an effort to court ‘a new audience’ of those unfamiliar with chamber music, or classical music generally. While well-intentioned, the efficacy of such programming is dubious and to have included some very atypical and, frankly, problematic pieces in the programme hardly seemed likely win over any neophytes.

Three of the movements were among the real classics of the repertory: the first movements from Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Dvorak’s F minor trio, Op 65, and the Pantoum movement from the Ravel trio; the others pieces, both New Zealand and from abroad, were unfamiliar.

As an aside, I must record a certain style-based concern with the trio’s ‘trade name’, NZTrio. In my long career with writing, a fundamental tenet has been the impropriety of abbreviating the names of, inter alia, countries. Look, for example, at the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and the New Zealand Style Book (Government Publications Ltd).

The piano sparkled in passage-work in the Beethoven, the cello spoke eloquently and the playing was of exceptional finesse, balance, refinement, each player demonstrating a polish and virtuosity, perfectly judged dynamics and rubato, that simply puts them in very distinguished company, internationally.

The Dvorak sounded at times like a small concerto, so full and rich was the ensemble, expressing a thoughtfulness, resoluteness, a sanguine quality that are some of Dvorak’s essential characteristics. One of the very small handful of real masterpieces in the 20th century trio repertoire, the Ravel Trio, with its inimitable French sound and its energy, simply left me wanting it all.

Ravel’s movement followed a highly diverting, brilliantly coloured piece by ChenYi, Tibetan Tunes. He is a Chinese-born American and his piece was a successful recycling of a folk tune in western classical clothes and its startling variety of string effects that derived from the Chinese violin, the erhu, were handled with marvellous skill.   

Earlier, we had heard a movement from Ross Edwards’s Piano Trio, written for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition; it began as a duo for violin and piano, easy, tuneful, in the same class as his well-loved violin concerto, Maninyas. There was a dream-like quality that could not have been more at odds with another kind of dream that we were offered in the last piece in the programme by David Downes.

The last two pieces both used images projected on a large screen as part of the performances. Phil Dadson’s Firestarters, cast in at least half a dozen sections, was used to show the unusual, though by now rather hackneyed, games that some composers liked to play with their instruments: using objects to strike or stroke the strings inside the piano, using two violins propped on chairs in percussive ways; later unusual camera angles focused on the players themselves. What about music itself? I closed my eyes to hear sounds that were of the kind that a thousand other avant-garde composers have created over the past half century.

Let me add that I have always had great affection for Dadson’s music with From Scratch, which I first heard in the 1987 Sonic Circus, the wonderful, but last such jamboree of 24 hours of New Zealand music in Wellington’s Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre.

In David Downes’s piece, Kingdom, it was the images that dominated, more a film with musical accompaniment, of nightmarish character revealing a weirdly disturbed personality. The images varied from ghoulish doll-like figures representing an unhinged family in a surreal, lunatic eating ritual, interspersed with reproductions of medieval portrayals of the cosmos, astronomical charts, wheels of fortune. On the whole, I didn’t get it,

My colleague Peter Mechen reviewed the concert on Radio New Zealand Concert on Monday and reacted more patiently than I did to these two works. I asked him to allow me to use the notes that formed the basis of his review, in order to allow readers a fairer view of the pieces.


“The first of two New Zealand works in this concert was written by Phil Dadson. Phil was, of course the founder of this country’s most original rhythm/performance group “From Scratch”, and has become well-known in the area of experimental and invented instruments, video/sound installations, sound-sculptures and graphic scores.This work was called Firestarters, and it gave the impression, aided by some wonderful close-up camera work of the musicians creatively manipulating their instruments (they did much more than “play” them in an accepted sense!).

“Looking at the screen enabled us to feel as though we had metamorphosed into insects, with an insect’s-eye view of things and an insect’s awareness of barely discernable sounds – because some of these sounds were micro- to say the least.

“Besides the string players, the pianist also contrived out-of-the-ordinary sounds from within the instrument, manipulating the strings with various objects such as a golf ball at one point, and what looked like stones at another (the camera enabling us to “peep” over the instrument’s side and into the heart of the beast). It became as much a visual choreographic outpouring as well as an aural one, and had a kind of unique beauty and grace as such, accompanied sounds of a fabulous, out-of-the-ordinary sense.

“Different sections of the music brought different and innovative sound-makers to play, such as electric fans in the second section, whose tintinabulations against the strings and cases of all three instruments compelled us to listen with what one might imagine was a new dimension of musical awareness. At the end a Dali-esque dissolution of sounds within time was suggested by the players’ rhythms running slowly down to eventual silence – to be aware of such actual dissolution was to again enlarge one’s aural sensibilities in an unexpected and thoughtful direction.

“The concert’s world premiere was a piece by David Downes, written to be played in tandem with a film, a piece of music animation described as an exploration of ritual and fantasy surrounding a family meal. The animations were best described as surreal, though a psychoanalyst might have had a wonderful time ascribed certain subconscious preoccupations with the shapes of the figures and their preoccupations with appetite and obsessive fulfilment, underlined by several close-ups of rodent-like mouths.

“With the Brothers Grimm stories in mind, and the subsequent analyses of the themes, motivations and actions of the stories and characters there for the reading, one could extrapolate at will regarding the composer’s own childhood, and the fantasy/reality syndrome. There was humour of a dark,obsessive kind, underscored by sounds which, in places made one think of Noel Coward’s remark about “the power of cheap music”, while in other places there were more overt references to menace and disturbance.

“The dissolution of order and security at the end, if a trifle cliched, was perhaps to be expected, given that the scenario was dream-like and hallucinatory, but nevertheless the suggested dismemberment and burning of family members made a disturbing impression. Of course, the problem with any piece of music-theatre or animation, is that the eye is sometimes engaged to the detriment of the ear’s ability to register sounds – and something of this process happened for me. I can only report that the composer’s scoring would seem to have underpinned the visuals appropriately, such was the effect of the whole on my sensibilities. I look forward to seeing/hearing the piece again.

“And one could, at the end, only applaud with great wholeheartedness the commitment of a trio of fine musicians in bringing to us an astonishing variety of music and performing it with such incredible verve and skill.”