Strings attached – viola then violin at the NZSM

Douglas Lilburn – Suite for Solo Viola

Cesar Franck – Sonata for Violin and Piano

Donald Maurice (viola)

Rupa Maitra (violin) / Ching-Fen Lee (piano)

New Zealand School of Music

Lunchtime Concert, Adam Concert Room

Friday 16th July 2010

Having already played Douglas Lilburn’s Suite for Solo Viola at a recent St.Andrew’s lunchtime concert, violist Donald Maurice decided to make further amends for the work’s previous neglect in recital by performing the suite again, at the Adam Concert Room on the Victoria University campus. This brought the work’s total of performances in this country to three, including the New Zealand premiere in 1989, played by Michael Vidulich in Auckland. This second performance by Donald Maurice was, I thought, more confidently and securely voiced than the first, undoubtedly the fruit of the player having brought the work up to performance pitch a second time in a short while, and living with the music close at hand in the interim. I’m sure my own increased familiarity with the music also contributed to the sense I felt of the work being given a deeper, richer aspect this time round, as was my own appreciation of what the composer was able to achieve writing for what must have been for him a relatively unfamiliar instrument. It must have been one he thought well of, enough to write within a few years a second piece featuring the viola, this time in duet with a baritone voice, the Three Songs of 1958.

As noted with the earlier performance, the first movement’s poco lento allowed the instrument’s magnificently rich and uniquely melancholy tones full opportunity to sing –  Lilburn’s blend of folk-lyricism and austerity reminded me this time round of some of Holst’s writing in works like his Lyric Movement for strings and solo viola. In contrast, the following movement’s “Quick” evoked the dance, with lovely reminiscences of the Scherzo of the composer’s Second Symphony, and spiky double-stopped seconds flavouring the melodic line, with a quirkily-slurred pizzicato note to finish the piece. I thought the succeeding piece “Lightly” enigmatic and ambivalent on first hearing, this time registering the music’s insistence and scarcely repressed nervous energy, perhaps denoting some anxiety on the composer’s part at the time of writing – though the piece seems to gradually ritualise its insistence with dance-like measures that finish on a more lyrical, even sombre note (all beautifully and vividly characterised by the player, I thought).

The fourth movement became, of course, the work’s prodigal son, revealing itself only in the performance by the dedicatee Jean McCartney’s grandson, James Munro, in Australia, in 2002. Regardless of whether the composer completed the serialist tone-row sequence he’d set out to do, the music has “other lives” involving effects created by a recitative-like tone punctuated by expressive trills and irruptions of rhythmic patterning. The intervals of the tone-row themselves expressed an interesting “adventure-sequence”, coincidentally in line with the idea of a work rediscovered after being lost in an ambient wilderness. The finale’s flowing ritual was nicely brought out at the beginning, Donald Maurice tightening up the textures and patternings of the music splendidly as the movement progressed, even if the occasional quicker figuration showed some intonation edginess at the tops of the phrases. My impression, after the music had finished, was of a journey well worth making, and with the opportunity to hear the work repeated in such a short space of time nothing short of a godsend.

More analytical minds than mine might well have been able to establish connections between the two works scheduled for this concert, with the Lilburn work followed by Cesar Franck’s full-blooded, overtly passionate Violin Sonata, played by Rupa Maitra, with Ching-Fen Lee on the piano. All I could think of was “vive la difference” as I listened to this gorgeous work unfold at the hands of two very skilful and committed musicians. The work’s opening phrases were beautifully floated, the violinist, though smallish-toned, demonstrating just enough variation to lead our ears onwards; while the pianist kept the music’s poise and gravity to the fore, not letting the feeling spill over at too early a stage. As well, occasional touches of portamento gave Rupa Maitra’s playing a slightly old-worldly air, in keeping with the late-romantic atmosphere the players were generating so well – both the culminating phrase of the “big theme” and the last ascent to the top note at the movement’s end were delivered with just the right amount of weight to realise the pent-up emotion of the music, which of course, surged and overflowed throughout the following allegro. Both musicians dug into the music splendidly, even if the violinist’s intonation occasionally went awry under pressure. The central declamations from both musicians were passionate and involved, and the coda was nicely prepared for, very “charged” at the start, and then excitingly negotiated.

The slow movement’s opening has an almost Shakespearean quality of utterance, both musicians catching the improvisatory and volatile air of the dialogue, and heightening the exchanges with well-timed breath-catchings of great stillness. They also beautifully coloured the finale’s second subject precursor, which stole in for its first appearance, before giving way to the great falling-interval theme that dominates the second half of this movement, here played juicily and whole-heartedly by Rupa Maitra, and supported with rich, spacious tones from pianist Ching-Fen Lee. The finale began sweetly, the canonic theme light and supple at first and gathering weight, with both violinist and pianist suitably trenchant when required, Rupa Maitra surviving an off-colour falling-theme episode which steadfastedly refused to find the note (her previous announcement of the same theme, a few phrases earlier, had been nicely in-tune, such are the anomalies of performance). But recovery was assured and easeful, as the opening theme returned and built gradually towards the “swinging” coda, thrills and spills adding to the excitement of reaching that final unison A – an enjoyable, and at times, stirring performance.

One thought on “Strings attached – viola then violin at the NZSM

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