Fun, virtuosity and the hugely popular Vivaldi at Nelson

Adam Chamber Music festival. Four Seasons

Boccherini: String Quintet in C; Rossini: Duo for cello and bass; Paganini: Introduction and Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ from La Molinara by Paisiello; Motoharu Kawashima: Paganigani (1999); Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagione), Op 8, Nos 1-4

Nelson Cathedral, Friday 11 February, 7.30pm

The penultimate evening concert from this splendid festival moved into the large territory of very popular, and very funny, and very extraordinary music. It was a brilliant success.

There was a surprise at the beginning. The artistic directors had realised that the Boccherini quintet that was played at the opening gala dinner and concert should be heard by more than those who were there (I was one of those not there), and perhaps heard again by the latter.

Boccherini is a composer whose music depends somewhat on the spirit and skill of the performers to reveal its real worth. There is huge scope for musicians of that calibre and who care to explore, for the Yves Gérard catalogue of Boccherini’s music lists some 140 string quintets and almost 100 string quartets, masses of other chamber music, some 10 cello concertos and 30 symphonies and so on to over 600 works. There are probably a couple of dozen quintets in C major.

Though I haven’t been able to identify it in the catalogue, the one they played is distinctive because its last movement was used by Jean Françaix in his ballet based on Boccherini’s music, Scuola di ballo of 1933; its Allegro con moto is indeed a rhythmically striking piece. The ballet suite used to frequent the Dinner Music programme on 2YC, the predecessor of Radio New Zealand Concert and I was happy to discover there was more to Boccherini than the Minuet.

The quintet was played by the musicians of the Hermitage String Trio plus Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten, in the additional violin and cello parts, and the opulent tone they all produced and the careful handling of its subdued and charming accents awakened the audience to this composer’s importance.

Rossini’s Duo for cello and bass was introduced by Hiroshi Ikematsu, principal bass player of the NZSO, in a mixture of fact and facetiousness. The latter was the right manner for it proved one of Rossini’s incomparable masterpieces in the field of almost impossibly difficult as well as comic creations. Ikematsu ended by adding that it was worth noting that it was written for an amateur cellist but a professional bass player, grinning superciliously at Rolf Gjelsten. Along with the music itself, there was a stand-up comic routine comprising alarming difficulties, riotous musical juxtapositions and absurd virtuosity. I doubt that the piece has ever had such an exponent as this; and Gjelsten wasn’t too bad either..

Ikematsu was back on his own later with a piece by a Japanese colleague (Motoharu Kawashima), bearing the name Paganigani, which when translated phonically into Japanese ideographs contains the word ‘crab’. It combined a great deal of game playing with a gloved hand that I eventually understood to be the crab, that caused him a good deal of trouble, interfering with his attempts to play what he confessed was impossibly difficult music. He said he’d spent hundreds of hours on it, but it had all been a waste of time.

In somewhat the same class was an almost as extraordinary piece by the real Paganini, based on an aria from an opera of Paisiello, played by Martin Riseley. It contained every trick the book, at least up to his time, and the performance was highly accomplished, delivered with apparent ease, though the price one pays for such speed and dexterty is often some loss of tonal richness.

The crowd was there for The Four Seasons however, and I saw no glum faces at the end. It was a nice idea to have Danny Mulheron’s recorded voice reading the little poems with which Vivaldi had prefaced each concerto. Most of the players from the two string ensembles formed the ripieno group, one to a part, and the soloists formed part of it when they were not playing the solo.

Helene Pohl played Spring with shining tone, great brilliance, and the entire sound was so fine that one was delighted that Radio New Zealand Concert had managed to find funds from their ever-tightening budget to record this and the most important concerts in the festival. After the boisterous applause, she smiled as broadly as any in the audience. Douglas Beilman took the next concerto, Summer, which features the famous summer storm. He produces a much more velvety tone from his vintage violin and it generated a splendid dark colour for the hail and destruction of the crops.

From the Autumn concerto Rolf Gjelsten took over the cello part from Leonid Gorokhov while the soloist here was Martin Riseley, delivering the peasant style harvest jollity with tugging down-bows and strong rhythms. Finally, Hermitage Trio violinist Denis Goldfeld was the soloist in Winter, which gave him the privilege of playing the beautiful second movement. He used short chilling strokes with shivering irregular rhythms, enhanced by playing sul ponticello – close to the bridge – at one point.

There was a great outburst of applause at the end with many on their feet.

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