Friday afternoon Brahms from the NZ School of Music

New Zealand School of Music Fridays at 5:

Brahms Masterworks

Violin Sonata no.3 in D minor, Op. 108 / Zwei Gesange, Op 91 / Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, Op. 23

Martin Riseley (violin), Diedre Irons (piano), Margaret Medlyn (soprano), Donald Maurice (viola), David Chickering (cello)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Friday, 28 May 2010

It was good to hear these five performers joining forces to perform Brahms. What was surprising was that in a printed programme emanating from an academic institution, no numbers, keys, or opus numbers were recorded (the invaluable Grove assisted me here).

Neither were they mentioned in the brief spoken introductions given by the performers. My notes say that the quartet was described by Martin Riseley as being first performed in 1868; perhaps I misheard – Grove says 1861.

Technicalities aside, these were enjoyable performances. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Ilott Theatre was almost full for this free concert, despite the inclement weather. Certainly we are not accustomed to hearing for no charge performers of this calibre.

The Ilott interior appeared less bland than usual; effective lighting on the black curtains made them appear alternately black, gold and red.

The sonata revealed tonal richness and expressiveness from the violinist, particularly in the last movement, which was very strong. However, this was not a particularly romantic rendition, compared with others I have heard featuring a slower first movement. Not that Riseley did not give it plenty of vibrato; at times I found it excessive. The piano, however, did not seem inclined to dwell on any passages.

The jaunty, folksy second movement spoke to me more.

It was a delight to hear the two songs ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ and ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (translations of the words were printed, though the latter title was mis-spelt). Though Margaret Medlyn is a soprano, she has a very rich lower register, that made her performance very reminiscent of the recording I have of Kathleen Ferrier singing these songs.

Medlyn caressed the words and made the songs meaningful and beautiful. Her tone was matched by a wonderful mellow sound from Donald Maurice’s viola though in places he lacked fluency.

Diedre Irons achieved a more romantic tone here than in the violin sonata.

While the performers of the piano quartet are all very experienced, this must be their first outing together, since Martin Riseley’s appointment is very recent, and they did not seem always to hang together as an ensemble. Individually, the players were fine, but tonally they were quite varied, and some early intonation lapses from the viola took the shine off the effect.

The energetic opening nevertheless augured well. The muted slow movement seemed to provide a cameo of Brahms’s writing, and made for delicious listening.

The third movement displayed the range of each instrument; its final section was gorgeous.

The Hungarian dance rhythm of the last movement was lively, even agitated. It featured fast pizzicato and contrasting sections, all full of melodic and rhythmic interest, and virtuosic flourishes. The greatest unanimity of tone was achieved in this movement. Its exciting ending fairly sizzled, especially on the piano.

It was a very worthwhile concert, and one hopes that the quartet will find further opportunities to perform together, enhancing their ensemble playing.

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