Menage a Trio – relishing the contrasts…


Aram Khachaturian – Trio (Ist Movement) / Bela Bartok – Contrasts

Charles Ives – Largo / Paul Schoenfield – Trio

Menage a Trio : Julia Flint (violin) / Anna Coleman (clarinet) / Chris Lian-Lloyd (piano)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, Wellington

Saturday 5th March, 2011

Menage a Trio’s combination of violin, clarinet and piano vividly and triumphantly presented both contrast and fusion throughout an enterprising program. This was the Australian group’s second Wellington outing, a little better attended than the first the previous evening. A pity, as such playing as we heard on the Saturday evening deserved far more widespread appreciation.

Beginning with just a single movement of the Khachaturian Trio, the group straightaway established the music’s exotic colour and flavor, those evocative chordal clusters on the piano bringing forth a soulful response from the clarinet and a beautiful sinuous line from the violin, capturing the work’s opening ebb-and-flow character. And how beautifully the players reversed the roles of clarinet and violin, the clarinet quixotic and decorative in its figurations and the violin soulful and intense. The Trio readily brought out the music’s volatile undercurrents besides relishing its heartfelt, folky atmosphere.

With Bartok’s Contrasts, the work that gave the concert its name, the players again took us right into the music’s world, the opening pizzicato blues of the Verbukos (the so-called “recruiting dance”) with its near-cabaret rhythms, piano tintinabulations and splendid clarinet cadenza acquainting us well with the character of the instrumental interactions. Bartok’s title for the work reflected the composer’s attitude that the instruments didn’t really belong together – he wrote the piece for two prominent instrumentalists, clarinettist Benny Goodman and violinist Josef Szigeti, each part emphasizing great virtuosity, while underlining the differences between the instruments – hence the title “Contrasts”. Even so, the first few minutes of the Pihenö (relaxation) movement features beautifully interactive instrumental textures, evoking one of the composer’s nocturnal scenes with the surest of touches, the playing here etching the sounds onto the aural scenario with the utmost sensitivity.

The last movement was something else, complete with a mid-music change of violin, the composer directing that at the start of the movement the violin’s lower string be raised half-a-tone to G# and the top string lowered to E-flat, creating a tuning effect known as scordatura, one common in European modal folk-music. The player reverts to a normally-tuned instrument after thirty or so bars; but the effect at the outset was striking, not unlike the opening of the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with a fiddle tuned higher than usual. It launched a proper “Danse Macabre”, with a whirling dervish aspect, conveyed with plenty of visceral impact by these musicians (echoes of the “Concerto for Orchestra” in places). A wistful, folk-flavoured central episode gradually took on a hallucinatory fire-siren aspect, out of which sprang madcap gallopings, a full-blooded violin cadenza, and exuberant shrieks from all participants, the players and their instruments dashing towards the music’s destiny amid exhilarating swirls of sound, the Bulgarian folk-rhythms adding to the excitement of it all.

Charles Ives’s Largo survived its transition from an intended, then rejected violin sonata movement to enchant us in these musicians’ hands – a dreamy, contemplative opening allowed firstly the solo violin ample opportunity to rhapsodize (difficult passagework giving rise to a strained touch in places), and then the clarinet, the latter proving a galvanizing force, goading the music into various volatile juxtapositionings, until the violin returned to call things to order and draw forth processional chordings from the piano, the dying fall of the music sweet and valedictory – a lovely performance.

The “dark horse” of the program for me was a work by the American-Jewish composer Paul Schoenfield – a Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. Inspired largely by Hassidic worship, the composer wanted the music to reflect the celebratory nature of Hassidic gatherings, as well as generate an exotic appeal to classical audiences. Though drawing from the work of Klezmer Bands, the music’s high-octane energies and cutting edges impart a somewhat frenetic performance aspect that might well have left most traditionalists reeling. Right from the galloping opening, punctuated at the pauses by heartfelt glissandi and rumbustious pianistic energies, the music never let up, the first movement’s closely-argued convolutions tightening all the more throughout a final breathless accelerando, again very excitingly played. A portentous march-like opening to the second movement featured a mournful, almost drunken clarinet supported by equally doleful violin-playing, the piano, with flailing arpeggiations keeping the beat going, the players seeming to relish the grotesqueries, screeches, slurs and all – totally absorbing.

The atmospheric Nigun movement, the most meditative part of the work, was set in motion by the clarinet alone, the violin’s answering figurations rather like the impulses of two landmarks in a desolate landscape, with the piano supplying the Bartok-like night-sounds. Without a break the players plunged into the exhilarations of the finale, whose beating heart drove the music into and through celebratory rituals of both circumspection and abandonment, the last couple of pages releasing surges of energy – altogether, a demanding work, but one which these young Australian instrumentalists excitingly made their own throughout.

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