Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons – a partnership of substance

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts Series

Martin Riseley (violin) / Diedre Irons (piano)


Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 4th July 2010

I’d hoped initially that Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons would give us Schubert”s heartwarming C Major Fantasia for Violin and Piano – the one that liberally quotes from the composer’s song “Sei mir gegrüsst” – but instead we got something darker and leaner, the Rondo in B Minor, D.895, a work whose intensely-focused moods and organically-motivated transitions throughout present a highly-concentrated dialogue between equal partners, at once demanding and rewarding to play and to listen to. Right from the beginning the performers plunged into the fray – Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons are both “big” players, chamber musicians who can think orchestrally when the music requires a large-scale declamatory response, while keeping the overall picture in mind – so we enjoyed the opening’s stern, imposing piano chords, and the agitated string figurations, and how the tensions seemed to mould themselves most naturally (though not completely) into a more lyrical, somewhat introspective mood. Riseley and Irons kept an undertow of unease going, so that we sensed the inevitablilty of things returning to come to a head – strong exchanges, again, very “orchestral” and full-blooded, the moment of dancing liberation into the Allegro a treasurable frisson of hesitation overcome by impulsiveness (I would take issue with the writer of the otherwise excellent programme-notes using the expression “seamlessly” to characterise that gorgeously teasing transition!).

Throughout the Rondo section, Riseley and Irons never shirked the music’s dynamic contrasts, realising the work’s volatility, the violin writing in particular requiring repetitive figurations of almost obsessive intensity in places, and the piano part visited with its own demands involving rapid alternations of poise and vigour, lyricism and exhilaration. I loved the composer’s surprising “false ending” at one point, the music seeming to deliver penultimate cadences before dancing away on its voyage of recapitultion, with a few variables thrown in a second time round, pianist and violinist equally relishing the opportunities to revisit and revitalise the experience. The occasional strained intonation in Riseley’s playing served to define the interpretative limits to which he was prepared to push the music to get the message across, and certainly helped convey the work’s ever-burgeoning excitement and sense of ultimate arrival – thoroughly invigorating!

Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano comes largely from the music for his own ballet Le baiser de la fee (The Fairy’s Kiss), which is, in turn, a reworking of music by Tchaikovsky, mostly from his songs. Throughout, the music’s fragmentary, spiky character was given a no-holds barred response from both vioinist and pianist, the moments of lyricism and melancholy associated with some of the Tchaikovsky originals spiced with Stravinsky’s fondness for both pesante rhythms and accents and increasingly complex neo-classical metric changes and dynamic contrasts, the formula roughing up the music no end. What came across most strongly in this performance was a sense of story, of rich descriptive detail, of expression and narrative taking centre-stage, so that even if some of the music’s angularities produced a performance effect outside one’s listening-comfort zone, the end result was at the service of the composer and his music.

After the interval, the first movement of John Corigliano’s 1963 Violin Sonata seemed in fact to continue the ascerbities of the Stravinsky, though perhaps with a more tongue-in-cheek commedia dell’arte flavour – plenty of 5/4 rhythms, string harmonics and double-stopped octaves, and tricky syncopations between violinist and pianist, tough and angular, but approachable.

Relief came with the almost Cole-Porter-like Andantino, nostalgic and reflective, with both musicians controlling the tones and dynamics most expertly – passages of melting sweetness set off against more forthright episodes, a 7/4 rhythmic section suggesting nostalgic “road music”, the trajectories engendering a lovely, spacious ambience all around. Riseley and Irons then opened up the music operatically, everything romantic and big-boned, even becoming ritualistic in the manner of Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate at Kiev”, before the quieter 7/4 passages brought the music home once more, floating the violin cross-rhythmically against the piano, the string tone stratospheric and celestial. The Lento third movement brought big “grim reaper” chords from the piano, set against gypsy-style rhapsodisings from the violin –  Martin Riseley at full stretch here, first with fiendish Paganini-like double-stoppings, then launching into a cadenza-like recitative that finished with ghostly high notes over a forlorn piano accompaniment, and  some elfin pizzicati resolving into a somewhat bleak sostenuto for both instruments.

Finales can defuse tensions, or else find ways to break an impasse; and so it was with this one, the music playful and teasing between the instruments at the beginning, the violin in molto perpetuo mode against the piano’s spiky angularities (the composer asking for slashing violin chords amid the restless figurations), and a couple of interludes bringing respite from the energies. Amazingly, both musicians were right on top of the music’s incredible exuberance over the last few pages, abandoning all caution, and leaving their audience tingling with excitement at the end. After these almost Dionysian excesses it was a good thing for all concerned that Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons took us to the Vienna of Fritz Kreisler to finish the concert – the great violinist’s pastiche-like compositions inhabiting an old-fashioned charm-suffused world of sentiment, with every brilliant violinistic touch matched by a melting moment of lyricism (and some of the brilliant bowings in the second piece La Clochette having certain Paganini-like whiffs of sulphur about them). Beginning with a set grandly titled Variations on a theme of Corelli after Tartini, and concluding with one of Kreisler’s favourite encore pieces, Schön Rosemarin, the musicians were able to bring to a conclusion an engaging and somewhat tumultuous afternoon’s music with more relaxed tones and accents, very much appreciated.

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