Ensembles combine in magnificent Nelson concert

Mozart: Divertimento in E flat, K 563; Brigid Bisley: Unbound for String Quartet; Strauss: Metamorphosen for string septet

Hermitage String Trio, New Zealand String Quartet, Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass)

Nelson Cathedral, Saturday 5 February, 5pm

At several points during the festival the question what was the essence of chamber music arose through the pieces played. Given thaat the essential ingredient of chamber music is music with one player to a part, the rearranging of music from orchestral to chamber music, and vice-versa, raises interesting questions; and there’s the related question, the effect of arrangements for other instruments or for more or fewer instruments that originally conceived, either by the composer or by another.

The Saturday evening concert presented a case of the latter.

Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, surely one of the largest pieces of genuine chamber music, though we still await the instrumental equivalent of Tallis’s 40-part motet. It was later rescored for string septet by Rudolph Leopold, after Strauss’s sketches were found in 1990 showing that his original intention was for a septet. This could well have been a mistake, an artistic travesty, which is what I feel about some of the contractions of Romantic orchestral music for chamber ensembles by Schoenberg and Webern. But I was delighted by this, by the greater clarity and purity of expression produced by the seven instruments (the three members of the Hermitage Trio, and three of the New Zealand String Quartet – not Helene Pohl – plus Hiroshi Ikematsu, bass). It seemed to be a better vehicle for the expression of emotion, of grief at the destruction of so much of Germany’s cultural substance. Oddly, I have always hoped to feel a more powerful emotion listening to the usual version of the piece, and have felt that it is too dense and thickly textured for that to find its expression.

Here it was however.

Obviously some of its rich harmony has been dispensed with, but what is left struck me as achieving more effectively what I suppose Strauss had wanted. The programme notes recorded that it was Swiss music philanthropist and conductor Paul Sacher who had asked Strauss for the big ensemble.

This was one of two masterpieces played at the 5pm concert in the Cathedral.

The concert had started with another of Mozart’s pieces given names that suggest light, occasional music. Just as the big wind serenade is no doubt the most powerful and delightful piece of music in its genre, so the Divertimento in E flat stands above any formally named String Trio in existence.

Not only did we hear this all-too-rarely played work, but it was played by a trio which had invested it with enormous attention, detailed study and reflection. There are times when excessive layering of nuances and ever-changing colour and dynamics can become ridiculous. It all depends on the musical intelligence and instinct of the players; the Hermitage Trio had done all that and had sacrificed none of its compositional inventiveness, compromised none of its essential greatness. Their leaning into phrases, their subtle tempo changes – rubato, changes of colour and timbre within a note, were a matter of constant delight. It was often cellist Leonid Gorokhov who seemed to lead the most acute dynamic shifts, while violinist Denis Goldfelt relished tensile, high-lying flights; the violist, Alexander Zemtsov, sustained the centre, offering more steady dynamics and contributing to but not extending the cellist’s gestures.

The six-movement work is quite long, but this performance was such that one hoped it will never end.

Lying between these two great works was a new string quartet by New Zealand composer Brigid Ursula Bisley, called Unbound. I am not known for unbounded and uncritical enthusiasm for every new piece by our composers. This one felt like music that might have had a slow gestation, but had nevertheless derived from musical inspiration that came from within. It did not sound as if the composer had sat looking at each bar wondering what to write next. It felt as if it was there and only needed refinement and arranging.

It certainly helped that the composer spoke to us and asked the players to illustrate certain elements. And it was a relief that she concluded by saying “I hope you enjoy the music”, instead of the fatuous injunction “Enjoy!” which has become almost universal. “Thanks, but would you mind if I remain responsible for my own feelings?”

It opened quietly, each instrument contributing intriguingly to a pattern of disharmony till a melody emerged and after a while viola and cello laid down some bass support. Influences? Yes, Bartók quite distinctly, but more important was an impression of music that was beholden to no school or musical ideology, but simply sounded alive to today’s environment, whatever that means, and aimed at engaging with the listener. Lots happened; there was a beguiling, dreamy phase, a yearning spirit as Doug Beilman’s second violin cried while Helene Pohl’s first violin sang a high descant over the cello’s pedal support.

There were so many elements that appeared distinct but ultimately created a coherant musical story; and it ended without flourish or rhetoric.

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