New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons at Waikanae

String Quartet in G minor, Op 74, No 3 ‘Rider’ (Haydn); Song of the Ch’in (Zhou Long); Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 84 (Elgar) 

New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons (piano)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 11 April 2010

Waikanae’s chamber music concerts take place in a large hall which is equipped for indoor sports and so it has a high roof and is much longer and wider than needed for music other than on the scale of a symphony orchestra.

The size is mitigated somewhat by the players being in a recessed stage at one end; that helps focus the sound. The result nevertheless, is a sound that, while not unduly small, seems light and lacking in bass resonance.

This was the first in their splendid, nine-concert 2010 series.

The impact of the playing of Haydn’s ‘Rider’ quartet was discreet and perhaps unintentionally fastidious. The music’s minor key offers a somewhat sober gloss on the potentially boisterous character in the riding rhythms of first and last movements, and this acoustic refinement added further gentility.

My memory of the quartet’s earlier performances of this piece, which I recall as one of their early favourites, is of a much more robust approach, and of a piece that they interpreted with more abandon and gusto. At the end of the first movement I felt as if a promised adventure had been somewhat uneventful.

Similarly, the Largo assai seemed to skirt round any temptation to utter profound thoughts, though by its end I had become more impressed by the wonderful refinement of the playing, here absolutely in place.

The last movement revealed the players’ ready response to Haydn’s delight in little teasings and surprises, all delivered with the most disingenuous straight face.

Zhou Long is an important Chinese composer, based in the United States, now aged 56; his Song of the Ch’in is a most effective amalgam of Chinese music as played on the ancient seven-stringed instrument, heard through the filter of western contemporary conventions. The result, a remarkably subtle piece, could hardly have found more sympathetic players, at ease with the variety of pizzicato, trembling bow strokes and delicate glissandi, decorated with idiomatic ornaments. In several sections, in contrasting tempi and moods, and an interestingly cyclical shape, it reached a discreet climax before subsiding into its earlier meditative state.

The first half ended with the unadvertised addition of a droll duo by Beethoven called Duet With Two Obbligato Eyeglasses for viola and cello (WoO 32).  An example of the kind of satirical piece, popular at the time, that mocked clumsy composers who used stock phrases and clichés but were incapable of finding ways to develop or integrate their musical ideas in coherent forms. At least the players here, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten, gave it a performance that exhibited all its mocking strengths and weaknesses convincingly.

The second half was devoted to Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Diedre Irons and the quartet approached it with an affection and sympathy that gave it a softness and charm that perhaps robbed it of a certain strength. Nevertheless, the first movement, with a couple of quite enchanting melodies, has a charm that is all its own and the players, in evident accord, made no attempt to dress them in anything other than the sweetest tones.

Though the programme note recorded a common view that the slow movement is its highlight, this performance didn’t convince me. There is melody, meandering and elegiac, but its ideal expression demands a very special balance between sentimentality and Brahmsian pensiveness, which I have heard captured; perhaps chamber musicians do not have a great deal of scope for the cultivation of that peculiar kind of English idiom.

I did not miss a scherzo movement, which is a convention that I often find surplus to the needs of a sonata composition.  For the Brahmsian (again) energy that drives the varied last movement serves a scherzo function excellently and it rekindled my attention to the rather unique loveliness of this quintet, and the regret that Elgar was not among the English composers of around the 1920s who cultivated chamber music more seriously.

Sweet, Seductive Sounds – La Musica Antica at Te Papa

La Musica Antica

Un viaggio musicale – a musical journey through the 16th and early 17th century

Songs and instrumental music from Italy

Music by Monteverdi, da Festa, Da Rore, Rognioni, Spadi, Strozzi, Frescobaldi, Caccini and Mazzochi

Pepe Becker (Baroque  Voices), soprano / David Morriss, bass

Robert Oliver (Phantastic Spirits), viola da gamba / Donald Nicholson, virginals

Peter Reid, cornetto

Te Papa Marae, Wellington

Sunday, 11th April, 2010

La Musica Antica consisted of singers and instrumentalists from different performing groups in Wellington coming together to charm and delight an audience with some utterly gorgeous sounds from the late Renaissance/early Baroque era, all secular music, and mostly on the topic of love.  A programme with English translations of the songs was provided at the concert, but I had little recourse to refer to mine during the performances, so captivated was I with the “sounds” of the music-making, the combination of voices, cornetto, viola da gamba and virginals having an unashamedly sensuous appeal to my susceptible ears.

Remarkably, these musicians recreated these sounds with one of their original number missing, soprano Rowena Simpson being indisposed and unable to perform. Pepe Becker reassured us that the concert wouldn’t be unduly affected, because cornettist Peter Reid would play all the duets with Pepe, realising the second soprano part on his instrument. The only piece they couldn’t thus play was the first listed in the programme, a Monteverdi duet for two sopranos and cornetto Come dolce hoggi l’auretta which was dropped.The concert began instead with the second-to-last listed item, a work by Costanzo da Festa, Venite amanti insieme, for soprano, bass, and cornetto, music whose pleasingly “ancient” sounds called to mind scenes of festive pageantry, of a kind often used in presentations of Shakespeare and his times.

The cornetto, whose sound has such a distinctive colour and timbre, worked beautifully as a “singing voice” especially in duet with Pepe Becker. Add to the texture David Morriss’s sonorous tones, and you have, as in da Festa’s Si come sete, a beautifully-tapestried combination of singing lines, delightfully teased-out for the listener’s pleasure. Again, as with most of these settings, it seemed to me to be the sounds as much as the words which gave these settings their peculiarly intense passion – something about these tones are “charged”, making a perfect vehicle for the highly emotional words of the texts.

Pepe Becker’s soprano was as pure an instrument as I’ve ever heard it to be, whether in duet with the cornetto, or creating whole realms of beauty out of a single line. Where she really showed her solo mettle was in the Barbara Strozzi setting I’Eraclito Amoroso in the concert’s second half, the composer requiring of the singer a vocal line that soars, weeps, fumes, melts and charms, the whole drawing the listener into the gamut of emotion wrought by a text describing the despair of love’s betrayal. Then, with the singer in partnership with the cornetto, Monteverdi’s Ohimè, dov’ è il mio ben featured Pepe Becker and Peter Reid in perfect accord, relishing the music’s mellifluous harmonisings and beguiling dovetailings of lines.

In such forthright company, David Morriss’s beautifully soft-grained bass voice, though clear enough in the opening Venite amanti insieme, by da Festa, was occasionally too reticent, especially where the tessitura was extremely low, as in the same composer’s Affliti spirit miei – here the voice needed a bit more juice in places, though the overall effect was touching and sensitive. He had more opportunities to shine in the following Una donna, where a slightly higher and more energetic line allowed the voice more expressive freedom. By the time he had reached Giulio Caccini’s spectacular Muove si dolce, towards the end of the programme, his voice had completely settled, resulting in powerful and varied tones used excitingly, with great runs, and, occasionally, even some very low notes. Adding to the excitement here and elsewhere was the continuo-playing of Robert Oliver on viola da gamba and Donald Nicolson on virginals.The instrumentalists had solo items, or extended solo passages within items, both the cornetto and the viola da gamba taking it in turns to duet with the virginals, each combination producing fantastic playing, some incredible runs and entertaining contrasts between both instruments and music keeping us burbling with interest and enjoyment.

The final Folle cor by Domenico Mazzochi brought together all the different elements of the concert’s success, again those seductive green-and-golden sounds, brought out by beautifully intertwined teamwork from singers and instrumentalists, relishing the quixotic rhythmic patternings of the setting. This was a kind of “eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow…..” song, whose recurring and somewhat sobering moral has its own common-time gait, underlining the contrast with the lighter, more carefree tread of the verses. Some of the composers in this concert were names I did not know – Costanzo da Festa, a sixteenth-century Italian composer who, like Monteverdi, wrote both sacred and secular music, Giulio Caccini, a member of the renowned Florentine Camerata, who, along with Jacopo Peri, is regarded as one of the very first composers of opera (each composed an Eurydice at about the same time), and Domenico Mazzochi, who wrote only vocal music and is best-known for his activities an a papal composer, working at the same time (late renaissance, around 1600) as the aforementioned figures. To be able to be entertained AND educated thus at a free concert of this quality goes to show that there are still silver linings that flash and glitter into view amid the present gloom of uncertainty and recession and whatever else darkens our lives; and that we should thank our luck stars for them and for the musicians who make them shine so brightly.