Chamber Music New Zealand’s Schubertiade at Sixty

SCHUBERT – Notturno Movement in E-flat D.897

String Quartet No.15 in G D.887

Piano Quintet in A D.667 “Die Forelle” (The Trout)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman – violins,

Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – ‘cello)

Michael Houstoun (piano), Michael Steer (double bass)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 28th October 2010

Sixty years ago in Wellington, in 1950, the ubiquitous “Trout” Quintet was performed by members of the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra with Frederick Page at the piano. This was one of the highlights of the very first season of concerts organised by the New Zealand Federation of Chamber Music Societies that year; and so it seemed more than appropriate that this same work would feature in an anniversary concert this evening devoted to one of the most beloved of composers of chamber music. Called a “Schubertiade”, the concert was a grand celebration of sixty years of fine and auspicious music-making, as indicated by the many world-wide household names appearing among the “historical” lists of contributing artists printed in the programme.

What better way to open an evening devoted to Schubert’s music than with the adorable Notturno, that mysterious fragment of an uncompleted Piano Trio whose serene beauty has given it a life of its own as a concert piece? Michael Houstoun’s first gently undulating piano notes were the waters on which the beams of light from the strings played, long-breathed and with graceful turns, the music’s shape nicely choreographed by the players’ physical gestures, the string players’ bows delineating the pizzicato notes like rippling, scintillating light-shafts. Throughout, the trio of musicians went to the places that the music did, revelling in the ebb and flow of lyricism and intensity, and characterising the different episodes with, by turns, colourings rich and subtle and rhythmic impulses strong and delicate.

Having confirmed Schubert’s credentials as a lyricist, the musicians realigned their forces for a performance of the greatest of the composer’s string quartets, No.15 in G Major, D.887. This music poses huge interpretative challenges, physical, intellectual and emotional, not the least of which is how to establish a “through-line” across four markedly diverse movements. My feeling was that the New Zealand String Quartet characterised the first three movements wonderfully, but then took a rather lightweight view of the finale, which seemed not to invest the music with enough “demon” at the outset for the drama of the  major/minor key contrasts to tell.  This music shares with the first of the same composer’s D.946 Piano Pieces a series of “dark flight” sequences set against grittily determined major-key pushes towards the light, generating a feeling of unease masking something not far removed in places from fear and desperation. I thought the playing needed more of an edge, such as the NZSQ was able to amply demonstrate during their recent Shostakovich quartet performances – in this instance, for my liking, the music was allowed a little too much respite.

Which was a pity, because the musicians had dug in boldly right at the quartet’s beginning – again, not the most searing of accounts that I’ve heard, but whose control and command in itself created tensions associated with a sense of chaos barely held at bay. Here, and in the almost schizophrenic second movement, the quartet’s workings-out explored every nuance of feeling, every impulse of contrast, the playing very “integrated” and coherent. One was tempted at first to blame the ample acoustic of the Town Hall for what seemed like a certain lack of immediacy – but these same players had in no uncertain terms filled out the comparable vistas of the Church of St Mary of the Angels not long ago with Schumann and Shostakovich; so one’s conclusion was that their response to this music was here being more-or-less truthfully conveyed.

Rightly or wrongly, one tends to associate the historical Schubertiades with more gaiety and conviviality of utterance, than the angst and astringent feeling generated by this quartet. What happened next was far more in accord with this rose-tinted view, with the appearance of baritone Roger Wilson making a dapper figure in cloak and gloves, accompanied by Michael Houstoun, to perform the song that both inspired and gave the eponymous Quintet its name, “The Trout”. Chamber Music Chief Executive Euan Murdoch had seated himself on the stage ready to welcome the singer and his pianist (a few more staged “bodies” gathered to listen would have engendered even more of a Schubertiade atmosphere, methought – but nevertheless the feeling of it was right). Roger Wilson delivered a pleasantly-modulated, if somewhat understated performance of the song, as if he was, surprisingly, a little overawed by the occasion (I’ve heard this singer deliver a number of splendidly characterised performances on the recital platform in the past, and was thus a tad disappointed…) After he had finished and departed. Euan Murdoch welcomed the audience to the concert, spoke briefly about the Society’s sixty years of history, and wished all of us many more years of listening to great chamber music played by more wonderful artists.

For such an occasion, the “Trout” Quintet was an obvious choice – more reconfigurations of personnel saw Douglas Beilman take the leader’s position, Michael Houstoun rejoin the ensemble, and double-bass player Michael Steer, late of the NZSO and currently based in Dunedin for post-graduate study make his first appearance of the evening. I thought the performance was beautifully held together by Michael Houstoun, who proved to be an excellent chamber musician (not always the case with star virtuosi). His contributions surged outwards, or melted into the ensemble at appropriate moments, the rest of the time maintaining the flow and upholding what the other musicians were doing. It wasn’t Michael Steer’s fault that he looked far more impressive than he sounded – the music was obviously written for an amateur performer – but I still felt a bit more temperament in places wouldn’t have gone amiss. The other string players made the most of their opportunities for ensembled give-and-take, though I felt leader Douglas Beilman wasn’t having the happiest of times with some of his ascents on the e-string. I did like his trilling during the Variations movement – these were no caged birds whose song we heard, but sounds that were wild and free.

Despite the ‘chalk-and-cheese” effect of the concert’s two halves, I thought the “Schubertiade” concept was a wonderful idea. The Society’s many supporters made obvious their enjoyment of and delight in the concert in a way that would have heartened those who work to foster the continuance of chamber music in all parts of the country. Birthday congratulations to the Society are definitely in order.

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