Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

A St Patrick’s Day ensemble: clarinet, piano and strings

By , 17/03/2010

The Leprechaun Ensemble: Philip Green (clarinet), Tom McGrath (piano), Anne Loesser and Cristina Vaszilcsin (violins), Peter Garrity (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)

Clarinet Quintet, K 581 (Mozart), Sextet: Overture on Hebrew Themes (Prokofiev), Piano Quintet, Op 34 (Brahms)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 March 2010, 6.30pm

This early evening concert may have been one of the most looked forward to though its audience may have been reduced by the clash with the first of the two concerts by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Those present were richly rewarded.

There was curiosity about the meaning of the name, and the best guess seemed to be the date of the concert, St Patrick’s Day.

Philip Green is co-principal clarinet in the NZSO and he has also made a big contribution to chamber music since coming to New Zealand from Australia in 2002. The sound he produces is very beautiful – steady, clear, capable of a very wide dynamic range and variety of colours, and he performs masterly glissandi and note-bending.

The sequences of up and down arpeggios in the first movement were not simply exercises; they were organic things with individuality, ravishing expressions of musical delight, sounding as if Mozart expected that nothing was likely to disturb the course of his life.    

The first movement is a masterpiece of structure, but also of rapturous melody; the second movement is no less, each instrument displaying the players’ gifts, often most attractive in duet. One of the effects that caught my ear was the alternating phrases between clarinet and the two superb violins where the violins’ tone seemed to merge with the clarinet. The ornaments in the Minuet and Trio were beautifully turned and the clarinet led the movement to a particularly glorious end. None of the repeats in this music were unwelcome; perhaps, even, there were too few! The variations of the Finale were the final source of wonder, the variety of mood and emotion, of colours and decorative effects and the prolonged phrases of the closing page were of unbelievable beauty.

Whether it was decided to play Prokofiev’s sextet first and then to look for a piano quintet to make full use of Tom McGrath; or whether the presence of a clarinet and a piano together with a string quartet led to a search for a piece using all six, who knows?  Prokofiev’s little piece is a charmer, usually heard in its orchestral clothes, but this is the real way. Right at the start I knew we were in for an exemplary performance, right inside the composer’s mind, Its sharp contrasts of mood and tempo make it an engaging piece and these players let no nuance go unexplored and enriched. Makes you wonder that its success did not inspire him to write more for such ensembles.

As if the most beautiful of clarinet quintets (well – what about the Brahms?) was not enough, I shall recklessly suggest that Brahms’s piano quintet, Op 34 made this an evening of absolute ecstasy. There are a couple of other piano quintets of surpassing beauty too, but this one did for, or rather undid, me. I listened to the lovely viola melody in the opening pages, and soon to the duetting by the two violinists (both exceptionally fine musicians and treasured imports from Europe in the past decade to join the NZSO’s first violins). Other charming little musical relationships of twos and three also emerged.

At first I thought the piano was not entirely at one with the quartet, but by the second movement I had completely changed my mind. Sure there was an occasional slip, but McGrath seemed to fall in naturally with the spirit of the string playing, the colour and rubato, their expressiveness.  His hesitant opening phrases in the second movement endeared the piano’s part to me and their sensitivity to moments of restraint or particular emphasis, seemed second nature.  The string players did well to invite McGrath back to Wellington to play with them.

Their instinct for the dramatic found full scope in the last movement, the withholding, and the releasing of tension, finally giving way to the galloping motif than plunges to the finish.  Brahms fecundity seems to know no end; till the very end you sense him, with difficulty, resisting the temptation to let his endless flow of fresh ideas and variants delay him.

I hardly need say this was a wonderful concert.

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