Delightful violin sonatas end Mulled Wine series at Paekakariki

Mulled Wine Concerts
Violin and piano: Sonatas by Lilburn (in B minor played by Donald Armstrong and Mary Gow); Beethoven (in F, Op 24 ‘Spring’) and Fauré (in A, Op 13), both played by Donald Armstrong and Sarah Watkins

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 7 August, 2.30pm

The last concert in this delightful beach-side concert series saw the unusual phenomenon of impresario turning pianist: Mary Gow. She had contributed as pianist to these concerts before but I had not heard them, and this audience was reminded again of her as a very fine pianist, playing Douglas Lilburn’s 1950 violin sonata with NZSO associate concert master Donald Armstrong.

The day was calm and sunny as we drove to Paekakariki, though the sea, at high water, was very rough. The concert began with sun pouring into the hall through the west windows, Kapiti Island floating out there. About an hour later eyes were drawn to the windows as they rattled and the sky suddenly darkened, and soon the sound of rain joined the sounds of violin and piano like brushes on a side drum.

Lilburn actually wrote three violin sonatas. In February 1943, he wrote one in E flat and later in the year, as a result of his association with Maurice Clare, who had been conductor of the Broadcasting Service String Orchestra, he composed another, in C, which was performed in December that year.

This was actually the second airing in two months of the third sonata, in B minor; it was played by Martin Riseley and Jian Liu at a St Andrew’s concert on 10 June marking the tenth anniversary of Lilburn’s death.

It was written in 1950, after Lilburn had become a lecturer at Victoria University College, for Frederick Page (pianist and head of the music department) and violinist Ruth Pearl; they premiered it at the university and then played it again three months later in Wigmore Hall in London.

This confident and resolute performance by Donald Armstrong and Mary Gow, alongside two famous and well-loved sonatas, revealed a mature work that seemed to have absorbed the character of European music of the time, tonal though with momentary dissident splashes. Cast in one movement, though with five distinct sections, it strikes me as interestingly different from the Lilburn who strives for an indigenous sound, or the one that remained too derivative of the English pastoral school. It is by no means avant-garde, nor is its lyrical character conservative; it is clearly a creation of the mid-century, comparable with the works of many other composers who stood aside from Darmstadt dogma. It is an impressive, vigorous, tightly argued work that should have become one of the leading chamber pieces of the New Zealand repertoire.

Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata was invested with similar energy, now with the piano part played by Sarah Watkins, pianist in the NZ Trio.  Its rising and accelerating phrases suggested a fast-emerging spring, blooming luxuriantly, as the sounds of the sea increased in sympathy with the performance. The two players made a highly attractive team, which could have suggested they’d been playing together for many years.

Fauré’s first violin sonata is one of his most lovely pieces, from the same vintage as the comparable, first piano quartet. It’s often compared to, and is almost as opulently romantic as, Franck’s violin sonata. It must be a joy for two good friends to play as the themes and motifs are tossed back and forth; the Andante, where the rhythm set up by pairs of quavers in four-beat time, seems to invite easy intimacy during a peaceful stroll. Then there’s the sparkling scherzo movement, Allegro vivo, in which both players’ dexterity, and especially Watkins’s, and ability to keep together was tested to the limit and not found wanting.

The biographical note reminded the audience of Armstrong’s role as director of the New Zealand (later the NZSO) Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1988 but, regrettably, disbanded few years ago: it was often recorded and the occasional broadcast of their recordings of 18th century works always strike me with their liveliness and polish. His talent for open, warm-hearted playing was very conspicuous in all three of the sonatas.

That is not to suggest that his was the dominant role, for Watkins playing is just as marked by its robustness and readiness to take the lead whenever it is called for.

The concert, and the series, ended with Mary Gow’s offering of one of Lilburn’s piano preludes which was followed by Armstrong and Watkins playing a quirky arrangement of the famous 1948 pop song, written by Ken Avery, Paekakariki (in the land of the tiki).

The audience at this concert was a little smaller than I’d expected. A pity, for it’s a long wait till the next season of concerts begins, which was outlined on the back of the programme. They start with the usual jazz concert in January and the five confirmed classical concerts start in March.

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