NZSM viola students shine at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

String students of the New Zealand School of Music – mainly viola students of Gillian Ansellof the New Zealand String Quartet

St Andrews’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 June, 12.15pm

The interest of these concerts from students rests as much with the experience of hearing gifted though partly-formed players, as with hearing music that is rarely heard at ordinary concerts. I sometimes hear somewhat condescending critical remarks from people who see concerts as opportunities to display their own knowledge and imagined refined taste and discernment.  The real pleasure however lies in the revelations that one can derive from listening sympathetically to performances that are a little less than perfect or ideal in terms of technique, style and interpretative overview.  They often throw more light on the nature of a piece than a performance that’s perfect.

One of the two familiar pieces on the programme was part of a Bach cello suite – the Prelude and Allemande from the Third Suite in C, arranged for viola. Naturally, the opening phrases arrived as a surprise, no matter how much one was prepared for it (and I had heard the suites played on the viola before).  For some reason, the tone was bolder and more strongly projected that I’d expected, a matter of the character of the instrument played by Vincent Hardaker, as much as his particular view of the music, which may have continued at a more uniform dynamic level and tempo than was ideal. However (he played from memory) it was polished, accurate pitch-wise and elegant in its articulation. He allowed a little more dynamic variety in the Allemande, which was also characterised by a feeling of determination, still displaying signs of the rigorous effort that lay behind its mastery.

There were a couple of concerto excerpts from Mozart contemporaries.  Hoffmeister was a friend of Mozart’s while Karl Stamitz emerged from the family that had created the famous Mannheim court orchestra in the middle of the 18th century and which Mozart hugely admired and whose orchestral characteristics profoundly influenced him.

Hoffmeister was not merely a musical friend of Mozart; his name is perhaps better remembered, attached to the K 499 string quartet that he published.  He composed many concertos for many instruments. Alice McIvor played the first two movements of his viola concerto in D, accompanied by Douglas Mews. With the score before her, her playing was fluent and the handling of ornaments relaxed and artless. Her cadenza was confirmation of her basic musical sense, where any slight intonation flaws were a small price to pay for a charming and proficient performance.

The piano introduction to the Stamitz viola concerto served to demonstrate the debt in terms of idiom and style that Mozart owed to his older contemporary, though not in sheer musical inventiveness and beauty. Megan Ward played only the first movement, with surprising ease, meeting its technical challenges stylishly.

The other familiar piece was the first movement of Brahms’s first sonata (for clarinet or viola) Op 120, No 1. I have tended to feel that these two beautiful sonatas of Brahms live more vividly on the clarinet, and here indeed, Leoni Wittchou’s viola sounded somewhat subdued alongside the piano part. Nevertheless, her playing was very engaging, emotionally varied, allowing its calm and languorous qualities to be relished.

The only item that was not primarily for the viola was Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C, Op 10, which has become somewhat popular on account of the rather small repertoire for the string trio, and its intrinsic qualities.   I seem to have heard it several times, most recently at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and from the Antipodes Trio during the St Andrew’s season of concerts in March (both reviewed on this website).

Alice McIvor returned, after Douglas Mews (without any assistance from students!) had rearranged seats and music stands, with violinist Lydia Harris and cellist Anna-Marie Alloway to play three movements. While the opening Allegro is a bit clunky (to use an unprofessional term), the Romanza and the fourth movement have considerable charm. Though the viola part was very competent and produced some lovely expressive playing in the Romanza, the player who caught my ear at many points was the cellist; in the opening passage her playing was surprisingly subdued, but when the cellist’s role was to lead, a player of great sensibility and easy accomplishment emerged.

The fourth movement is a Theme and Variations where all three players demonstrated technical skill, interpretive insight and impressive musical maturity.

No real allowances had to be made to enjoy the music in this recital, very much testimony to Gillian Ansell’s mentoring, on its own terms.

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