Enchanting concert by Antipodes Trio at Waikanae

The Antipodes Trio (Christobel Lin – violin, Nicholas Hancox – viola, David Requiro – cello)

Dohnanyi: Serenade in C, Op 10; Lilburn: String Trio; Handel/Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor on a Theme by Handel (from Harpsichord Suite HWV 432); Schubert: String Trio in B flat, D 471; Beethoven: String Trio in C minor, Op 9 No 3

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 13 March 2.30pm

One of the reasons for going to this concert was the patriotic impulse to hear a Wellington musician who’s making good in Europe. Nicholas Hancox took his B Mus (Hons) at Victoria University and has now completed a master’s at the University of Michigan. Learning never ends: he has moved to Munich for post-graduate work at the Hochschule (Academy) für Musik und Theater. The group’s violinist Christobel Lin is from Auckland and studies four hours away by train, in Vienna. Their cellist derives from a New York connection; he’s appeared as a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and the Tokyo Philharmonic, and is now artist-in-residence at the University of Puget Sound in Washington State.

The subsidiary reason for going to Waikanae, really just a big bonus, was the pleasure of going all the way by train which discharges you about 100 metres from the hall. Even without a Gold Card, the journey would be so infinitely more enjoyable than sitting behind a car wheel: the commuter queues on the roads north leave me incredulous.

Finally: the concert. They confess that their ensemble is not of long standing, but I needed to be told that as it would not have occurred to me. Individually they play with great accomplishment; it may well be perceived that the cellist has a slight edge in terms of finesse in articulation and tonal variety, but the excellence of their musical togetherness kept me from observing significant differences in their levels of artistic attainment. Critics often make a display of perceiving such niceties; the truth is that only the players themselves and perhaps their tutors can really notice the almost imperceptible nuances.

The string trio is a much less common creature than either the string quartet or the piano trio and its repertoire is much smaller. Two of Beethoven’s early opus numbers comprise string trios, usually seen as rehearsals for his graduation to the string quartet; we heard the third of the Opus 9 group. With its C minor key, it has the outward signs of seriousness and it was the second movement where both the music’s quality and the players’ understanding became evident, taking their time through its spaciousness and imposing, slow tempo. That was the last piece in the programme.

The concert had begun with Dohnanyi’s now rather familiar Serenade (it was played in the recent Chamber Music Festival at Nelson), written with an ear touched by the Beethoven model (his Serenade, Op 8, in D and the Serenade for flute, violin and viola, Op 25, which the Elios Ensemble played two days later in the St Andrew’s season of concerts ).

The Dohnanyi was handled with vivacity, with striking attention to the detail of dynamics even to the detailing of individual notes. that could be compared not unfavourably with its performance by the Hermitage Trio in Nelson. The serenade form here seems to be shorthand for a series of short movements that avoid the sonata form’s succession of themes and their development and elaborate recapitulations. There was no time to become impatient of slender ideas, no matter how charming. Interest was maintained through sharply contrasted movements: a Romanza that took us on a light-hearted journey, diverting through the varying roles given to the three instruments and their playing techniques: each had its turn in the limelight. A Theme and Variations had ever-changing tempi, and allusions to the most serious devices employed by serious classical music.

Lilburn’s string trio from the mid 40s, when he was about 30, is a fairly insubstantial piece. Any kind of criticism of Lilburn is comprehensively outlawed in this country, but I have to confess to finding this piece so generally uneventful, the melodic fragments insipid and so tentatively handled that it is hard for me to say much apart from remarking its sympathetic and idiomatic performance.

After the interval, the trio played the Passacaglia for violin and viola that Norwegian composer Halvorsen based on theme of Handel (the Harpsichord Suite No 7, HWV432). A tune that lends itself to variations, it is treated with little reference to its origin, handled with imagination and variety in the sequence of variations that such a theme often invites. Being something of a virtuoso showpiece (though it is rather more than that) it was just one occasion that I was highly impressed by the performances by Lin and Hancox. Both combined bravura and artistry, nowhere better displayed than in a beautiful, breathless, pianissimo passage played at the octave. It was as satisfying an experience as anything else in the programme.

The remaining piece was the single movement String Trio in B flat, D 471, by Schubert. A simple utterance based on charming themes, it gains its place more through that melodic simplicity than through any interesting evolution and development. The players had all the musical resources to make it a wholly enchanting performance.

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