Octets from Amici Ensemble at St Andrew’s

Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong, Andrew Thomson, Lyndsay Mountfort, Robert Ibell, Hiroshi Ikematsu, Gregory Hill, Philip Green, Robert Weeks.

Jean Françaix: Octet “A Huit” (1972)
Anthony Ritchie: Octet, Opus 129 “Octopus”
Schubert: Octet in F major, D.803

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace, Thursday, 11 March, 6.30pm

To hear ensembles of more than four players is unusual, and when an octet plays a delightful programme such as this, it justifies an audience larger than that which attended.  In the peaceful and acoustically excellent setting of St. Andrew’s on The Terrace, it is a great pity that more people have not so far availed themselves of the opportunity of hearing such wonderful music. 
However, one person told me that the brocuhre describing the concerts came out so much later than the Arts Festival programme that she was already fully committed to as many concerts as she could manage.

It is also a shame that the early evening concerts were not all timed to fit in with events starting at 8pm in the Festival that patrons might be attending.

The first item, verbally introduced, as were the others, by Donald Armstrong, was a wonderful piece of writing, with strong parts for woodwind.  These NZSO players are nearly all principals of their sections.  It showed in their assurance, impeccable playing and ensemble.

After the quirky opening Moderato, the Octet’s Scherzo was lively; it was followed by an effective Andante, featuring a muted opening section for strings only.  The Mouvement de Valse began in most un-waltz-like fashion.  The comic waltz that followed sounded as though it was written for an elephant and a humming-bird.  Light-hearted, witty and rhythmic, it was played with panache and skill.  Were we being treated to a palm court orchestra in Galeries Lafayette, or Samaritaine?

The first movement, ‘Octopus’, of Anthony Ritchie’s quartet was certainly descriptive of the creature, its tentacles incessantly moving through the water.  In the second movement, ‘Sacrifice’, it seemed that we could hear the little octopuses (octopii?) crying, while in the ‘Survival of the Small’ the final violin motif perhaps signified the plantive survivor of the little octopuses.

This was imaginative writing, at times complex.  The playing included some of the best tones I’ve ever heard from a bassoon.

The woodwinds carried on their prowess in the Schubert octet.   In the first movement, sunny, bouncy and cheerful woodwind solos interrupted the strong string passages.

The andante second movement featured a beautiful clarinet solo, which gave way to the first violin’s mellow lower strings sometimes the upper strings were somewhat strident), and a return to the clarinet.

At that point I had to leave but Lindis Taylor, who was there, offered the following comments on the rest of the performance.

The ensemble’s vitality created an energetic Scherzo which contrasted strikingly with the slower pace of the Trio’s middle section. An octet that blends strings and winds provides such variety and clarity of sounds giving every player a share of the limelight and throughout the Scherzo, the clarinet of Philip Green was distinctive, giving special edge to the spirited, tripping rhythm.

The fourth movement, Andante, was taken quite quickly, but after a moment it seemed a perfectly natural pace. It’s a variations movement based on a tune from one of his operas, Die Freunde von Salamanca, in which several instruments take their turn in the lead. Greg Hill’s horn, an important contributor throughout, led in the third variation, mostly warm and polished though with occasional proof that ‘perfection’ and ‘horn’ is an oxymoron. And the playing of cellist Robert Ibell, supported vividly from below by Hiroshi Ikematsu on the bass, was particularly elegant.

In the Menuetto, the fifth movement, clarinet and bassoon had an entertaining alternating passage, in passages alternating between major and minor keys.
Then came the most magical opening, Andante molto, of the last movement. I have never heard it played with such tremulous apprehension, a premonition of the unknown, with cello tremolo and studied placing of wind chords: a splendid introduction to the spirited, remarkably optimistic Allegro which is a brilliant section that keeps producing new ideas and fresh angles on old ones, ending in a thrilling climax.

One of the virtues of the performance was the omission of several repeats; Schubert’s repeats are sometimes troublesome; they disrupt that tumbling flow of inspiration. Without them we are left simply to marvel at Schubert’s endless inventiveness.  Anyway, three-quarters of an hour is long enough for most compositions.