Chamber Music Hutt Valley; Amalia Hall (violin) and John-Paul Muir (piano)
Sonata for violin and piano: Mozart’s in E minor, K 304; Fauré’s No 1 in A, Op 13; Brahms’s No 1 in G minor, Op 78; Debussy’s in G minor, Lesure 140
Lower Hutt Little Theatre
Tuesday 10 August at 8pm
The second to last in the concert series of Lower Hutt’s chamber music organization featured two young musicians, still in the midst of studies, now overseas. Yet their programme made no concessions to youth and imagined inexperience for both players have played together, sporadically, for at least three years and are much at ease on the recital platform.
Before I proceed however, it is worth noting the amount of music, particularly chamber music, that happens outside of Wellington city itself. All of it deserves the attention of those who live in other parts of the metropolitan area; one of the reasons for my quitting reviewing for the Dominion Post was its ban on the coverage of performances outside the city, along with other frustrations.
There is the particularly successful, and often adventurous series at Waikanae, a smaller but excellent series at Upper Hutt and the quirky Mulled Wine concerts at Paekakariki which sometimes extends beyond the strictly ‘classical’ field. With train services reasonably convenient for Upper Hutt and Paekakariki, and soon for Waikanae (but sadly not for Lower Hutt), there need be no fear of traffic or parking problems.
The Lower Hutt Little Theatre is a more attractive venue than it was; the piano does have certain shortcomings but the acoustic should not be subjected to the sort of comment that I sometimes hear. It is clear and lively.
We heard four sonatas, all central to the repertoire. The Mozart is one of a Paris-published set that follows a two-movement pattern, copying the form from composer Joseph Schuster. For the 22-year-old, it shows amazing confidence and maturity: minor key, more than usual prominence to the violin, with invention and treatment of melodic ideas with strength and individuality.
Nevertheless, Amalia Hall played her opening phrases with studied diffidence and hesitancy alongside the bold and confident piano of her partner. Yet as they played together he modified his dynamics to match hers. It’s not to say her playing is routinely self-effacing, for it was often full-bodied and generous, and always alert to the needs of every phrase, with scrupulous use of vibrato. In fact her vibrato showed her attention to the emotion and meaning of every phrase; it was not simply a routine shake.
John Paul Muir performed some kind of unusual rhythmic turn in the very first bars of Fauré’s sonata that hinted at a slip, but I remained uncertain of what I heard. There was no doubt about feeling for this music however, in which he again applying clearly contrasting dynamics to his role in response to the violin’s needs. The piece is filled with the seductive melody that Fauré lavished on his early works, and the pair played rhapsodically, taking every chance to discover fresh nuances; and especially in the slow movement Muir evinced an endless curiosity, constantly seeking to find what might be behind the plain notes on the page. Dynamic delicacy led him to give occasional emphasis to certain notes, making the accompaning violin part even more interesting and charming. I felt there was more exploratory curiosity than plain ‘vivo’ in the scherzo movement. Here I wondered at the odd blurred note from the piano, whether its action is a bit heavy to respond reliably to soft, fast repeated notes; and there were a few blemishes in the last movement from the piano.
The order in the printed programme of the sonatas in the second half was reversed. They played first the Brahms, then Debussy.
If Fauré was the French Brahms (as has been remarked, with that disagreeable hint of German condescension), then let me call Brahms’s first violin sonata, with its rhapsodic charm, a work of the German Fauré. Much as Muir’s playing was imaginative and filled with an exploratory sense, there were times when his penchant for emphasis of particular notes and phrases was misplaced, and I felt that here a difference of maturity was evident; the shy, quieter passages were not what they might have been.
In the second movement Hall captured its profound meditative beauty, and the last movement which is no bold heroic finale, was again the opportunity to be touched by her ability to sustain long melodic lines filled with genuine emotion.
I found myself, first, simply filled with wonder at the remarkable assurance and level of melodic and rhythmic originality in Debussy’s sonata, hardly paying attention to the playing itself. Happily, it dawned on me that my wonder at Debussy was the fruit of the performance itself. It (the composition) was assured and confident because, even in pain, Debussy’s genius did not desert him and his sure feeling for shapes and harmonies created something that sounds perfectly inevitable and natural even though it had moved so far from the sounds of most of his contemporaries: even in the terrible war years that distressed Debussy so profoundly.
Though the piano was still inclined to overemphasis, it became clear why they had decided to end with Debussy. For the playing by both artists captured the playfulness of the Intermède, and the restrained animation., the scintillating finale, was an uplifting experience, filled with gaiety, flippancy, wonder and breathlessness (to borrow from the programme notes).
Just in case the audience were in any doubt about sheer virtuosity, they encored with Sarasate’s Gypsy Dances, which was overwhelming, evidence of the violinist’s skill as well as her sheer musicianship.