Waikanae hugely enjoys Amici Ensemble

Mozart: String Quartet in C, K.157
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade in G

Anthony Ritchie: Clarinet Quintet, Op.124
Brahms: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op.115

Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong and Cristina Vaszilcsin, violins; Julia Joyce, viola; Rowan Prior, cello, Philip Green, clarinet)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday, 17 April 2011, 2.30 pm

As always at Waikanae, there was a well-filled hall, and as usual when Donald Armstrong is involved, items were given spoken introductions: by him, to the Mozart and Wolf works, and by clarinettist Philip Green to the two clarinet quintets. This was in addition to excellent programme notes.

Of the Mozart, Armstrong said it was ‘good-natured… [it] has the greatness without the complexity of his later works. This quartet was written when Mozart was aged only 16.

The players were not quite together at the beginning, but soon settled down. The tone was blended best in the slow movement, and the bright and lively presto finale. There was good playing from the cello throughout the attractive piece.

The version of Wolf’s Italian Serenade for string orchestra is perhaps more often played than the quartet original, but the latter is, I think, to be preferred for its clarity, which is particularly important for the unusual harmonies and modulations. At times, they sounded like those to be found in Noël Coward songs. As the programme note said, this is a delicious miniature.

Anthony Ritchie has written a most interesting clarinet quintet, commissioned by Christchurch’s musical philanthropist, Christopher Marshall, in 2006. The music begins very quietly, the bird-song-like clarinet along with the strings playing softly on the bridge (ponticello). There was some very striking writing here, especially for the clarinet.

After the slow opening, the allegro first movement, had some marvellous passages for the viola and the clarinet; it ended abruptly. The slow movement began in unison for second violin, viola and cello – a very telling device. Then it returned to ponticello. The fast finale was agitated, even unsettling. Philip Green’s clarinet playing was superb throughout the work. It was a most effective work, if somewhat dark and mournful in the main.

The major work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet. Composed in 1891, a few years after the Wolf work but vastly different in character, it has ‘an atmosphere of serenity coloured by warm melodies, as well as a wonderful interplay amongst the five players’, as the programme note stated.

Again, Philip Green’s playing excelled, though sometimes the string sound overwhelmed him. Whether a different seating plan would have helped, I don’t know. Mostly, his playing sparkled with brilliance and sensitive interpretation.

The adagio featured the splendid muted first violin of Donald Armstrong, particularly. Ensemble was excellent otherwise, and pianissimo playing was exemplary from all the performers – helped by some alterations to the ceiling of the small platform.

In the Presto third movement, the viola produced some wonderful pizzicato. There was a magical range of dynamics and well-controlled crescendos and decrescendos. The quintet’s wonderfully mellifluous ending was beautifully handled, with perfect phrasing.

A stamping, applauding audience obviously enjoyed the concert hugely, especially the Brahms. It was a superb programme from a highly skilled group of players.

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