Piers Lane and the Doric String Quartet in rapturous accord

Haydn: Quartet in D, Op 64 No 5 ‘The Lark’; Bartók: String Quartet No 3; Chopin: Nocturne in E flat, Op 55 No 2; Ballade No 3 in A flat, Op 47; Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 10 September, 7.30pm

To the simple music-lover, this looked like the most attractive of the year’s chamber music concerts from Chamber Music New Zealand. Though the audience was quite large, I’d expected to see a bigger house than this. My guess was about 750 customers.

Perhaps the Doric Quartet is not as well known as I thought; it’s getting harder and harder for the casual music lover to distinguish the excellent from the superb from the amazing as more and more groups pour out of music academies all over the world.

It certainly is a pity that human beings are so attached to reputations that are very substantially manufactured by publicity hype or luck, and are ready to allow their ears to be misled accordingly.

But on top of the superb quartet there was Piers Lane, one of the most engaging and musical of international pianists, though not a star in the class of Kissin and Grimaud, Aimard and Uchida, let alone the dozens of brilliant and good-looking youngsters that flash across the night sky, many not to reappear. .

Lane was certainly the biggest draw-card at the 2009 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, and here he offered us a reminder of how to play Chopin in a whole-hearted way, with all the virtuosity needed yet with immaculate taste and refinement.

He opened the second half alone, with two pieces of Chopin – the concert’s only nod to the two bicentenarians (they played Schumann’s piano quintet in the other series). His Nocturne was broad, confident, in a quintessentially romantic vein; the third Ballade was inspired by similar approach, its several phases colourfully distinguished, giving particular attention to accents within phrases; it was a performance that was of the very essence of the period in which in was written.

Well-known as these pieces are, through recordings or our own struggles at the piano, live piano performances have become rare , not just of Chopin, but rare as a genre: even from the great pianists brought here by the NZSO or the APO.

The concert had begun with Haydn’s ‘Lark’ quartet, one of the most spirited and engaging. Though the first two movements demonstrated the quartet’s extraordinary awareness of the subtleties and the secrets that Haydn planted in each separate part, there were discoveries and revelations, and the surpise of speed in the last two movements. Quartets of this period were show-pieces for the first violin and without undue display, Alex Redington allowed his easy mastery, clear and penetrating, to perform that role, though at the start he created the sweetest, smallest sound. The quartet relished an exquisite languor in the second movement, beautifully decorated little violin cadenzas and long pauses as it changed direction. The last two movements were uncommonly but convincingly fast, creating will-o’-the-wisp effects that light up and then died away. The speed of both movements seemed to raise them into a transcendental state which never settled for a moment.

Bartók’s 3rd quartet is relatively short, but it is one of the more acerbic of the six, as he made his mark among the avant-garde of the time – the late 1920s; jagged rhythms and pithy motifs that suggest Magyar modes and melodic shapes, but avoiding any hint of the late romantic. Though in four sections, there are no breaks and the labels attached to each of the ‘nominal’ movements hardly matter, as Bartók allows each in turn to add bits of a whole to form a remarkably integrated composition. The players’ spiritual sympathy with the music was remarkable, as was their commitment to its time and place, all of which drew lyricism and musical vitality from what can be merely difficult music in lesser hands.

The audience responded to the grand opening of Brahms Piano Quintet with an almost audible sigh of luxury, and even more as the mood dropped to something that took us secretively into its confidence. The unease of one moment was turned magically to gaiety, but nothing lasted long. The quartet, and pianist, were throughout in the most perfect rapport, neither party dominating or out of character with the whole. The third movement, Scherzo and Trio, was splendid, ending almost too thunderously.

The labeling of Brahms as a classicist by scholars has always struck me as the view of those who study the score and its formal niceties, but who don’t bother to listen. Nothing could be more whole-heartedly romantic, expressive, occasionally quixotic in character, than this work and especially the opening of the Finale; reticent, almost wracked with self-doubt. And yet it evolves into the most magnificent, heroic pageant which is gloriously prolonged and entirely envelopes the members of the quintet. An utterly memorable performance.


Michael Stewart’s adventurous organ recital at Cathedral of Saint Paul

Presented by the Wellington Organists’ Association

Praeludium No 2 in E minor (Bruhns); Fugue in A flat minor, WoO 8 (Brahms); Trio on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 676 (Bach); ‘Wondrous Love’ – Variations on a shape note hymn (Barber); Master Tallis’s Testament and Paean from Six Pieces for Organ (Howells)

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 10 September, 12.45pm

This was one of the regular Friday recitals given on the cathedral organ, and it contributed importantly to the plethora of organ recitals all over the city during National Organ Month.

We heard the music director, Michael Stewart, from the rival cathedral up the road, the Sacred Heart, in the very model of a programme for a National Organ Month. It reached into lesser-known territory, but never into the quite large body of vapid music that finds its way too often into organ recitals. Absent was any music from the great 19th and 20th century French school, and for once I did not miss it, such was the pleasure and sense of discovery in the entire three-quarter hour recital.

I don’t recall hearing music by Bruhns before; he was, like Bach briefly, a pupil of Buxtehude who was based at Lübeck. Bruhns was born, a generation before Bach, in the province of Schleswig-Holstein that vaccilated between German states and Denmark, and he became organist to the Danish court at Copenhagen. This piece was the longer of two Praeludiums that he wrote in E minor; I was charmed by several passages, particularly rhythmic flute ostinati. The whole piece, which easily sustained interest through its ten minutes or so, struck me forcibly as more varied and characterful than what I know of Buxtehude; there were many phases that seemed to have been written a lot later than the late 17th century. Sadly, Bruhns died of plague in 1697, aged 31. Its brilliant playing on this fine, colourful organ made it an engrossing discovery.

Bach’s Trio in G on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’ is one of three chorale preludes on this hymn that form part of he Clavier-Übung III (‘keyboard practice’: No III being the only one of the four volumes of Clavier-Übung designed for the organ). This too was clearly chosen as a diverting piece for midday with tripping rhythms in triple time, with colourful exercises that involved repeated shifts from manual to manual.

Brahms’s organ music is generally in the shadow of his orchestral, chamber and piano music and songs, but his organ music always impresses me too. This Fugue, without Opus number, written in 1856, began with a careful statement of the tune which slowly gathered strength through the increasing complexity of its fugal evolution. It impressed as an early work, not just for the singularly skilled and inventive writing which never seemed a mere academic fugal exercise or to fall into mere repetition; nevertheless its musical richness and command of fugal techniques had an engrossing, emotional impact.

Samuel Barber’s was another novelty for me, a piece based on a hymn that employed the ‘Shape note’ system, an American notation system that uses differently shaped notes to indicate pitch. A religious tune with a simple, primitive quality, it offered Barber a basis for sympathetic treatment, not through piling on complexity but by elaborating the tune, varying the harmonies and registrations, with imaginative passages in low registers over pedals to create a genuine religious feeling, that Stewart never allowed to be  overwhelmed by the forces at his disposal.

Two pieces from Herbert Howells’s Six Pieces for Organ ended the recital; the first somber and introspective, reflecting that slightly dull seriousness that characterizes some English music; that soon gave way however to robust and interesting reflective passages. The Paean began with the Swell closed, but the volume and richness of registrations steadily increased till the final phase, meandering and suspenseful, created a blaze of excitement towards the end.

It was a splendid programme designed to offer the curious plenty of rewarding discoveries, of the kind we hear too little of; but much more than that, these were all performances that were vivid in their range and imaginative in their combination of stops, rhythmically bracing, ornamented with taste and bravura, played by hands and feet with huge agility.