Rare and wonderful Mozart opens Nelson’s festival

Adam Chamber Music Festival: Grand Opening: Dvořák, Halvorsen, Mozart

Nelson Cathedral

Friday 4 February 7.30pm

For those who knew their music, this was a rare treat. Dvořák’s string sextet is a rich and gorgeous piece, one of those pieces that has familiar moments but is surprisingly neglected. Is it really too hard to get the necessary six player together? The sextet gains it special sonority and interest both from the more complex textures available and the addition of two lower instruments, an extra viola and cello. The four New Zealanders were assisted by the violist and cellist from the Hermitage Trio.

The extraordinary gifts of the latter trio were further revealed as the violinist and cellist played an astonishing duo composed by Norwegian Johan Halvorson based on a tune by Handel. No mere virtuosic show-piece (though it was all that), but a sophisticated and brilliant little composition in its own right. It unleashed a storm of applause.

But the real masterpiece was Mozart’s Gran Partita, or Serenade for 13 wind instruments (though the 13th is Ikematsu’s double bass) in B flat, K 361. It had profoundly impressed those who heard it in Vienna in 1784, and it has continued to enchant audiences ever since. It is less often heard live because it’s hard to get a dozen top-class wind players together. But the NZSO Soloists helped out and the performance was deeply musical, moving, tear-inducing, enthralling. Four horns, and two each of oboes, clarinets, basset horns and bassoons, plus double bass.

It’s almost an hour long, with seven movements including two minuets, a theme and variations movement and others in rondo or sonata form. There are very few other such ensembles and none that touch it in musical inspiration and depth.

It is a ever-changing pattern of solos from the various instruments, sonorous symphonies of sound from different combinations and often the entire band. There’s too much to detail, but constantly striking was the string bass, often suggesting timpani, from Ikematsu, grounding the whole fabric. Most rapturous was the third movement, an Adagio, in which Robert Orr’s oboe provided long ecstatic cries underpinned and echoed by clarinets and one by one, all sections. The remarkable fifth movement too captured deeper responses through its exquisite melancholy alternating with a brisk march rhythm, often accompanied by a hypnotic tread or pulsating chords from bassoons and basset horns.

The concert had begun with the little heard sextet in A, Op 48, by Dvořák, again neglected on account of its configuration. It really is too bad that string quartets have come to so dominate the chamber music field that the numerous quintets, sextets and larger ensembles are little known.

The beauty of the sextet in its normal configuration is a string quartet plus additional viola and cello, which gives both a heart-warmingly greater sonic foundation as well as allowing the composer to engage in more complex harmonic paterns. Though much of the melody was folk-derived, there was nothing peasantish about the composition or its performance.

The third movement – a furiant in place of minuet or scherzo – was probably most likely to sound familiar, from kinship with Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, but the entire work is filled with melody that the composer knows how to make use of in ever-shifting ways.
While the playing was polished and opulent, there were moments, as in the dumka second movement when a little more boisterousness might have helped. In the last movement a long viola solo from Gillian Ansell caught the ear: a theme and variations, whose melody and its various guises were enchantingly played by this happy ensemble that found complete unity of spirit throughout. Someone asked Haydn why he didn’t write string quintets and he said he’d tried but could never find the fifth voice (or something to that effect); Dvořák had no such problem finding richness through six parts with which to clothe his fecund source of melody.

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