Distinguished guests share Nelson concert of masterpieces

Mozart: String Quintet in C minor, K 406, with James Campbell in place of first violin; Shostakovich: String Quartet No 8; Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op 15; Beethoven: Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Nelson School of Music, Sunday 6 February 2011

The evening concert offered no further obeissance to the national day. Instead, it was given over to two rather contrasting parts, returning the the universal instead of the parochial. In the first part strings were in the spotlight, together with clarinettist James Campbell; in the second British pianist Martin Roscoe played.

Campbell explained his adaptation of Mozart’s String Quintet K 406, for clarinet and strings. Since there were few chamber music pieces involving the clarinet, he said, and the fact that Mozart’s string quintet had started life as one of his wind serenades, the octet K 388, he believed it gave licence for a partial revision of the quintet to include the clarinet in the place of the first violin. In principle, not a bad idea; but in the event, it was unsatisfactory. I have not studied the changes made to Mozart’s allocation of parts as he transformed eight brass parts to five strings, but it seemed to me that slightly more radical rescoring might have been needed to give the clarinet the kind of solo place more akin to a concerto. As it was, it was at once too close, and not sufficiently distinguished from  the violin or the strings as a whole.

The players in the ‘clarinet quintet’ were Campbell, Douglas Beilman playing violin, the viola players from both ensembles, and Leonid Gorokhov on the cello. Perhaps because of the way it had been arranged, the clarinet was sometimes out of balance with the strings; often, Campbell simply played too loudly. The net result was a performance that did not quite meet the expectations of an audience whose appetite had been so whetted by the Gran Partita, for another marvellous Mozart serenade-style piece. The performance as a whole however, left no doubt about Mozart’s achievement in the creation of another masterpiece in the serenade/big ensemble genre.

The second piece in the programme was Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Interestingly, it had been played at a ‘Pro-Am’ concert in the late afternoon in Fairfield House, a charming old mansion set in spacious grounds on the hills south of the city. The Pro-Am tradition exists to give amateur players the chance to be tutored by and ultimately play alongside professionals. This time hardly any of the amateurs were young people, which was the original intent. The professionals were violinists Justine Cormack and Rebecca Struthers, violist Victoria Jaenecke and cellist Euan Murdoch and each played alongside two or three amateurs. It meant playing the quartet with four players to a part, which would not have been inappropriate, for there’s a strong orchestra arrangement of the quartet by Rudolph Barshai as a prototype. Players of limited skill delivered a very different experience but it somehow sharpened my receptivity for the extremely fine performance a couple of hours later by the New Zealand String Quartet. Here was the first chance to hear the New Zealand players on their own, in music that they have thoroughly commanded. It was a powerful, finely nuanced performance doing complete justice to Shostakovich’s biting and angry masterpiece.

The second half of the concert belonged to pianist Martin Roscoe, making his first appearance at the festival. He claimed that he was about to play two of his favourite pieces of music, Schumann’s guileless but challenging Scenes of Childhood and Beethoven’s last, spiritually complex sonata.

Most of the Schumann pieces are familiar though it is rare for them to be played together: I’m sure I’ve never heard all 13 played live before. Roscoe proved a Schumann pianist of both subtlety and strength who succeeded in linking them persuasively into a sequence that enhanced them individually. There was unaffected magic in many of the pieces, burnished with a warm piano tone; his performances were never too retiring or diffident though; occasionally the piano’s heavy bass resonance was overbearing.

Beethoven’s last sonata was another matter. Roscoe’s playing captured the quietness and repose of the lyrical and legato parts; but subtlety in the forte and fortissimo passages seemed more difficult to achieve, an effect of the piano’s characteristics and the auditorium’s lively acoustic. Nevertheless, the dramatic narrative and feeling for shape and structure emerged powerfully, with great conviction.

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