Brahms piano trio and Czech duos at St Andrew’s

Breaking free from the Chamber – van der Zee, Mitchell and Mapp

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

Janáček – Sonata for Violin and Piano
Martinů – Sonata No.2 for ‘Cello and Piano
Brahms – Piano Trio No.2 in C Minor

Anna van der Zee (violin) / Paul Mitchell (‘cello) / Richard Mapp (piano)

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 20th March 2011, 3pm

Many of my most memorable musical experiences come from unexpected encounters with either unfamiliar compositions or stunningly good performances. In Wellington, these days, one expects at most concerts certain levels of musical understanding and technical accomplishment, but that still leaves plenty of stratospheric spaces for performances which take the listener to those out-of-the-ordinary heights that can’t help but enlarge and enrich one’s view of existence in general. This was a concert with many such moments.

I don’t wish to give the idea that these musicians normally don’t impress with their playing, though I have to say that in ‘cellist Paul Mitchell’s case I thought his work on this occasion exceeded in overall terms of accomplishment anything I’d previously heard him do. I’d heard Anna van deer Zee’s work previously as a member of the Tasman String Quartet, and remember enjoying her musicality in that context, somewhat removed from the realm of a virtuoso violin sonata, as here. As for Richard Mapp, I’ve always had the highest regard for his piano-playing in different settings, be it collaborative or soloistic – which is not to say that I’m never surprised and delighted by what he’s able to achieve out of the blue, as it were.

But this, I thought, was a special concert, one in which the musicians infused their material with oceans of appropriate character – fiery energy and deep concentration (Janáček and Martinů) and robust strength and romantic warmth (Brahms). And what a stunning opening to the concert it was, with the Janáček Sonata’s fiery, volatile declamations hurled at us by both violinist and pianist, only for the music to revert to the most confessional and intimate utterances without warning – such tenderness sitting alongside blazing statements and searing lines! I thought the playing simply terrific, encompassing both strength and vulnerability, handling the composer’s characteristic sudden switches into contrasting moods with great aplomb. Van deer Zee and Mapp caught the second movement’s folksy lyricism, swapping melodic lines with wonderful dexterity and, in van deer Zee’s case, beautifully true intonation.

The scherzo-like third movement set an invigorating “stomping” character at the opening against a more heartfelt trio section (these players characterized everything so vividly), while the finale’s epic treatment of tragedy cast the instruments almost as protagonists in places – the violin occasionally savaging the piano’s more long-breathed music with brutal interjections, the music in between time creating a mood of desperate and uncertain yearning for peace and harmony, constantly under threat. The players achieved an intense, heartbreaking flow of feeling at one point, but one which the echoing of the movement’s opening quickly dissolved, as if waking us from a dream and returning us to a harsher reality.

Martinů ‘s second “Cello Sonata, written in the United States after the composer had fled the Nazi invasion of Europe, is a kind of “New World” chamber sonata, containing numerous echoes of his Czech heritage. The first movement has a slightly “haunted” quality, folkish lines punctuated by episodes of great agitation, with textures for both instruments richly wrought. Mitchell and Mapp played into each other’s hands throughout quite masterfully, the focus of the ‘cello line matching and mirroring the piano writing to perfection. Together these musicians made something special out of the funeral-like Largo, recreating a whole world of sorrow and disquiet, galvanized by some virtuoso playing from the pianist leading to a most heartfelt and desperate entry from the ‘cellist – fantastic playing, completely “inside’ the music. The finale’s opening, combatative exchanges between string pizzicati with “attitude” and jagged piano writing, never let up, fusing lyricism with rhythmic energies, the players readily capturing a sense of “flight”, of desperate movement towards a kind of freedom in sadness and anger.

After these heart-on-sleeve utterances, the Brahms Piano Trio seemed at first a model of classical decorum – as well, the composer’s writing (strings often in unison) tended in the opening movement to play down the inherent warmth of this instrumental combination, so that we got an athletic, sinewy sound, focused and lean-textured. Occasionally I found the piano a shade overpowering in this movement, and wondered whether the player or the acoustic was to blame. This wasn’t so pronounced in the subsequent movements, the slow movement’s songful variations bringing the players’ tones together in a beautifully balanced outpouring of melody. The Scherzo’s wonderfully delicate, slightly “spooky” opening tones were beautifully realized, the warmer, more relaxed second subject was given plenty of character by the players, rising to something approaching heroic utterance at its climax, and switching to a Mendelssohnian feeling at the return of the opening, much relished by the musicians.

Hugo Wolf once complained of Brahms, “he can’t exult” – a judgement that this music surely and triumphantly denies. The musicians captured the flow of things right from the start, enjoying the occasional chromaticisms and contrasting them with a more chunky and bucolic character in other places. Richard Mapp’s playing I found terrific, establishing the kind of momentum which swept everything before it, his fellow-players matching the excitement right to the music’s joyous conclusion. Altogether, the concert gave us music-making of a high order, reminding us all over again (if needed) of the depth of talent to be found among our local musicians – such wealth, and at the disposal of our pleasure.

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