New Zealand Trio looks towards Australia

New Zealand Trio (Chamber Music New Zealand)

Sarah Watkins – piano, Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello

Mozart: Piano Trio in B flat, K 502; Judy Bailey: So Many Rivers: Stuart Greenbaum: The Year without a Summer; Pärt: Mozart-Adagio; Schumann: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 63

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 24 April 7.30pm

The second concert in Chamber Music New Zealand’s 2010 subscription series offered another concert from the New Zealand Trio (their trade name: NZTrio) which was one of the groups that played in the chamber music weekend during the International Festival last month.

Though this evening we were offered complete works, a similar balance between standard repertoire and new music was aimed for. One of the two established pieces was by Schumann, no doubt to mark his 200th birthday this year. It is conventional to give more praise to his chamber music involving piano than his string quartets, not a view I subscribe to; this D minor trio is certainly a fine work. It achieves a balance between piano and strings and the writing for strings sounds idiomatic and comfortable, though I confess I have not consulted string players specifically on the point.

It opened (Mit Energie und Leidenschaft – appassionato) with a relaxed tempo, slow, allowing nicely-judged rubato and sometimes a quixotic variety of mood; there were attractive piano moments, and the cello took the spotlight for a few bars. Through the lively second and the soulful, adagio third movements, the players expressed themselves with a convincing naturalness; it was the last movement’s more striking melody that endeared itself and set it alight. It was the last item in the concert; nevertheless, I had a feeling that it ended with a shade less energy than they had brought to the opening Mozart trio.

Mozart’s K 502 had indeed begun with a tremendous flourish, mainly driven by pianist Sarah Watkins, and the striking first theme tended to dominate. In fact the piano, from where I sat, on the right side of the balcony, close to the players, left the violin and cello somewhat obscured, in terms both of volume and of musical interest (and I’d have liked less choreographed head and shoulders effects from the pianist). Much of the time the cello acted as little more than a basso continuo instrument. In the second movement there was greater equality as both violin and cello were given more interesting material; the violin displaying a wonderful refinement and the cello too emerged clearly and vividly.

The rest of the programme comprised small pieces: two premieres – on this tour, if not on the night – and an odd piece by Arvo Pärt that toyed amusingly with the Adagio of Mozart’s piano sonata, K 280.

Both the pieces by Judy Bailey and Stuart Greenbaum, both resident in Australia, were quasi visual in inspiration, with some kind of ecological/political subtext. Though I am not convinced that music (unless accompanied by words) lends itself to polemical, or even visual or narrative material, it can succeed if your name is Berlioz or Strauss: success depends on the creative strength of the musical impulse and sheer genius.

So Many Rivers made pleasant noises, jazz or blues coloured, but left me with the impression of meandering improvisations rather than of music that emerged from any powerful musical inspiration.

The second piece, The Year without a Summer, by Stuart Greenbaum attempted a portrayal of the huge volcanic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in Indonesia which dimmed the skies in the following year around the world (did it colour the outcome of the Congress of Vienna?). Though it too sounded often like the work of a gifted improviser, its meditative character suggested some musical inspiration.

Without attempting to relate its phases to the event and its effects, the music was better constructed than the Bailey piece, stood on its own feet without the need of its narrative, and revealed a composer of considerable sophistication even if, in the end, it did not seem to be a work of great depth.

On balance, I left with the feeling that there was not quite enough music of real consequence in this programme, though the players are among the most talented in the country and they play to audiences that generally seek weighty classics, as well as being prepared for substantial new music.

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