Delightful Dvorak excites at St.Andrew’s

DVORAK – Piano Quintet in A Major Op.81

Cristina Vaszilcsin, Lyndon Taylor (violins) / Peter Garrity, viola

David Chickering, ‘cello / Catherine McKay, piano

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington,

Wednesday, 1st December 2010

At the end of the first movement of this performance of the Dvorak Piano Quintet I was flabbergasted – here was a group of musicians who had come together just for the occasion performing at a free lunchtime concert in Wellington, giving us playing and interpretation of a stature I was confident I’d not heard previously bettered in this music. I had heard the first violinist, violist and pianist play as a trio before, but within this extended configuration of performers Cristina Vaszilcsin, Peter Garrity and Catherine McKay seemed to me inspired beyond anything previously I’d heard them perform together – obviously the “enhanced” alchemy generated by the presence among the ensemble of Lyndon Taylor and David Chickering (playing violin and ‘cello, respectively) was working brilliantly.

Several things at once registered regarding the group’s playing: – firstly, the beautiful timbral focus of each instrument, at once distinctive and proportioned, each individual line a delight for the ear to follow. Then the unanimity of both attack and of phrasing, five instruments playing as one, yet each seemingly free-spirited, realized both the music’s strength and poetry. Whether one listened to each bar, or a phrase or succession of phrases, one felt the musicians had swallowed the music whole, finding both incidental delight in detail and long-term purpose and strength in the movement’s overview.

So every aspect of the music was given its place – the lyricism of the opening ‘cello-and-piano melody (beguiling tones from David Chickering and Catherine McKay, here), the vigor and point of the response, the depth of colour and texture in the middle voices, the distinctive tone of voices such as the viola’s, and the volatility with which things such as tempi, dynamics and textures would change – but it was the cumulative impact of the whole which truly galvanized our sensibilities as listeners. The quickening of tempi at the movement’s end thus seemed an entirely natural outcome of exuberant release from the energies the playing had built up throughout. Perhaps we in the audience should have forgotten our inhibitions and clapped and cheered at that point – instead we simmered with the excitement of it all, and waited impatiently for the next movement to begin.

The gorgeous viola solos in this work reminded us that the composer himself played the instrument – Peter Garrity’s open-hearted tones were set off beautifully by Catherine Mckay’s piquant piano-playing throughout the slow movement’s opening, one whose melancholy brought out the sunny remembrances of the con moto sections which followed. Here, rhythms were buoyed by enthusiastic pizzicati, with Cristina Vaszilcsin’s and Lyndon Taylor’s silvery violin duetting delightfully recalling happier times, the exuberance marred only by a brief moment of imprecision with the staccato downward phrase at the end. Although viola and violin soulfully revisited the opening, cheerfulness kept on trying to break in – there was a merry dance in whirling triplets begun by the viola, mischievously spiked by the piano in a two-against three game of chase, and a return to the con moto pizzicati impulses, with more cross-rhythms to keep the musicians on their mettle and beguile the listener’s ear – but a stoic sadness seemed to prevail and wander into lonely silence at the end.

As with Schubert’s music, tragedy often sits alongside exuberance and gaiety in Dvorak’s work – and the Scherzo of the Quintet immediately dispelled the previous movement’s sobriety with energies of the most infectious, almost unseemly kind, here brilliantly realized by the players, the “furiant” aspect readily recalling some of the most brilliant of the composer’s Slavonic Dances.  In the middle of it all, a gentle pastoral-like trio played engagingly with rhythms, suggesting a lovely ambiguity of trajection before skipping back into the dash and propulsion of the main dance. At the finale’s onset I thought the tempo a fraction too fast at first; but the players sustained both their articulation and ensemble, Lyndon Taylor’s violin getting a rare chance for its voice to shine alone by leading off the energetic fugal section of the movement, here especially relished by Catherine McKay’s piano-playing. Towards the end, the strings’ arched descent, echoing that of the piano a few bars before, gave regretful notice of the music’s conclusion, the musicians seeming reluctant to release those final graceful stepwise utterances, which grow inexorably into whirling flourishes of brilliance. These last sounds were greeted here with the utmost enthusiasm by a good lunchtime crowd, whose members seemed unanimously of the opinion that they had witnessed some extraordinary music-making.

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