Two supreme chamber works at St Andrew’s season of concerts

Musika Ensemble – Christina Vaszilcsin and Lyndon Taylor (violins), Peter Garrity (viola), David Chickering (cello), Catherine McKay (piano)

Borodin: String quartet No 2 in D; Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A, Op 81

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 11 March, 7.30pm

The second concert in this admirable series arrived at the very heartland of chamber music. The two pieces played are, I am sure, among the top ten of any real music lover’s favourites, both coming from the wonderful store of Slav romantic masterpieces. But you wouldn’t guess that from the sad array of worthy but utterly predictable stuff that gets into Radio New Zealand Concert’s New Year count-down every year.

Just to animadvert there for a moment. No piece of chamber music made it this year; though there were a couple of piano pieces (including, amazingly enough, the Waldstein and not the Moonlight sonata). However, I recall that both Schubert’s marvelous String Quintet and his Death and the Maiden Quartet have been there in past years.

You’d have thought that the endlessly played trailer that touted for votes for weeks might have prompted a few punters to include Berlioz’s Nuits d’été. But I suspect that, failing to recognize it, none had sufficient curiosity to identify it. I don’t recall Berlioz ever featuring on the list: to me, blindingly incredible.

It’s one of music’s great tragedies that Borodin was such a conscientious scientific researcher that he had so little time to compose; many have compared his genius with Schubert’s for its natural sense of form, its spontaneity and melodic abundance.

His second string quartet is dangerously overloaded with tunes, rich and long, that hurl themselves at you right at the start. Hurling was the operative verb this evening as the four players, in a readily amplifying acoustic on hard timber floor, made an overwhelming noise; I mean in the way of Beecham’s joke against the British: they didn’t like music much but loved the noise it made.

Each player seemed equipped with the most opulent and beautiful instrument and each played as if they’d been together for years and were in total accord.

Curiously, none of the string players are New Zealanders by birth; and one (Lyndon Taylor), sadly, is about to return to the States.

Borodin’s first movement was driven by playing of wonderful sonority and romantic sensibility. The second, a Scherzo, without a trio but with a changed tempo middle section, was no less luxuriant in tone though it might have lost a little in polish. (A few years ago a couple of the tunes in this quartet would have been familiar because of their use in the Borodin-inspired musical, Kismet). The disappearance of that pastiche has meant that Borodin’s music no longer suggests something that at times seems overly sentimental. The fact that the Nocturne has become more familiar in an orchestral transcription, however, doesn’t help: the real thing cleanses the palette, especially in a performance such as this, shamelessly romantic.

Borodin’s attention to the string quartet form met with the disapproval of some of his fellow ‘Mighty Handful’ (‘Могучая кучка’ – Moguchaya kuchka, earlier known as ‘The Five’) colleagues. Though there are melodic suggestions of Russian folk music, they are by no means as foreign to western European ears as is much of the music of the Balkans that Bartók and others later exhumed. It has always seemed a strange obsession that some Russians are determined to claim their music to be quite ‘uneuropean’, exotic, when Russia’s cultural as well as political history is so profoundly tied up with Europe.

The audience could count itself doubly blessed, with Dvořák’s beautiful piano quintet in A as the second piece. Along with Borodin and Schubert, Dvořák too was one of the greatest naturals of the 19th century, or any century, and this quintet is as full of melody as anything in the repertory. Dvořák’s gift not only unleashes endless melody but enables him to explore and develop them in full symphonic scope.

The addition of a piano to the ensemble seemed to bring about a degree of tenderness and refinement in the playing. Here, there was no question of any unwelcome dominance by the piano, and things were near perfect. For much of the time the strings create such beautiful sounds, having the monopoly of thematic presentation, that the piano is there simply (far from simply) to create illuminating texture, a feminine, supportive role, offering sparkling contrasting splashes. But every so often the piano grabbed the spotlight. When she had it, Catherine McKay used it with discreet delicacy, lightly fluttering, sounds of ravishing musicality, weight without noise, flawlessly judged in its relationship with the strings.

To simulate an orchestral sound is not the aim of chamber music, but the best chamber music, played by the most percipient musicians in a generous acoustic does attain that level of richness and opulence. This was such an occasion.

For the Dvořák, first and second violins changed places. While in the Borodin, Taylor’s lead fiddle was strong and confident; in the Czech music, Cristina Vaszilcsin led with a greater delicacy and diffidence in places where it counted, and that included the most boisterous parts of both the Dumka and the Furiant movements. Her own background in the Transylvanian region of Romania, and with what I assume to be (from her name) her own Magyar descent, she sounded at ease in the music from a few hundred kilometers to the north, with no need for invented histrionics.

I must say I was somewhat distressed that a larger crowd was not here for this programme of two of the most beautiful pieces of music – ideal as an introduction to anyone who thinks classical music is not for them. This is the kind of programme and the kind of musicians that an enlightened education ministry (don’t laugh – I’m serious) should be funding to tour the secondary schools of the country on a regular basis in an attempt to alleviate the cultural deprivation that curriculum changes over the years have stricken us with.

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