Mêler Ensemble: programme changes but all is forgiven

Sunday Concerts (Wellington Chamber Music)

Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor for violin and viola after Handel; Janáček: Pohádka (Fairy Tale); Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; Brahms Piano quartet in G minor, Op 25

Mêler Enesmble (Josef Špaček – violin, Amanda Verner – viola, Aleisha Verner – cello, Andrew Tyson – piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 21 August 3pm

‘Mêler? Bien sûr; les instruments se mêlent parfaitement, avec bonheur’.

As there was with the Mêler Ensemble’s concert at Lower Hutt, there was some disappointment that the programme had been changed, caused ostensibly by the late replacement of the original pianist (Tanya Gabrielian). Waikanae too had their promised Schumann replaced by Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat. At Wellington the music of the first half was changed, from Schubert and Brahms to pieces by Handel/Halvorsen, Janáček and Piazzolla. The reasons for these late changes can actually have had nothing to do with the change of pianist, as he was named along with the advertised programmes.

Comments I heard at the end of the first half, however, suggested that all had been forgiven, so unexpectedly delightful most had found the unheralded and largely unknown music.

At this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson I had heard the variations by Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen, drawn from the last movement of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor. Then it was played in the version for violin and cello by two members of the Hermitage Trio, one of the overseas guest ensembles that adorned the festival throughout. It was the only piece that was common to the programme played at Lower Hutt on 11 August.

This afternoon it was played by violinist Špaček and violist Amanda Verner – Halvorsen’s original version. Such a hybrid piece calls for a compromise between the performance style of the high baroque and that of the late romantic period and I can imagine performances that lean too far in one or other direction. Here, using ordinary modern instruments, and acknowledging the musical conventions of the turn of the century, long before any serious thought was given to period authenticity in performance, it would probably have been deadly to adopt an 18th century style.

Handel’s splendid theme was only enhanced by the arrangement and especially by this performance which was filled with all the richness, power and tonal variety available to players on modern instruments. Both players also happen to be superb musicians who created gorgeous ensemble, brilliant virtuosity, as well as occasional surprise with earthy and passionate passages. In true Romantic fashion, the piece built up to an exciting climax at the end that was brilliantly executed.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (strictly, just ‘Tale’) might be a story told in music, but even paying no attention to the story, the music, as idiosyncratic as the composer normally is, stands on its own feet. It’s in three movements. Here the two instruments, cello and piano, play almost entirely different roles, the roles of the lovers in the story whose fate rests in the balance for most of its duration; and in this lies a good deal of the interest of the music. In the opening movement the cello play pizzicato for a long time alongside the piano that ripples with a sort of hesitating impulsiveness.

Anyone familiar with Janáček’s piano music such as In the Mists or On an Overgrown Path would have no trouble identifying this, with its mood of uneasy ardour, even in the happier last movement where a happy resolution can be foreseen.

Even though the second section is lighter, sunnier in tone, each instrument retains its separateness; the dialogue is conducted by players of very striking technical panache and the ability to invest music with drama and personality.

The third, and another very different, piece was Astor Piazzolla’s impressions of the four seasons in Buenos Aires. None of the pieces in the first half called for all four instruments; the Piazzolla came close, in an arrangement by one José Bragato for violin, cello and piano. Though it would be interesting to hear it first in the clothes Piazzolla gave it – the bandoneon quartet – this more European model, if not much suggesting the inimitable sound of the bandoneon, carried the essentials in terms of rhythms and melodic accents, the little rolling, chromatic left-hand motifs at the piano for example. Thus I might have been misled in sensing the flavour of a perhaps French chamber piece, such as Milhaud. At many points I felt I could hear the influence of his Paris teacher Nadia Boulanger, though she was famous for leading her students to discover, to cultivate whatever was their own essential voice as composer. The arrangement offered moments for occasional bravura display, for example in a small-scale, brilliant cadenza for Špaček in the first movement.

Even in the slightly surprising, Schubertian melody in the third, Spring, movement, where Europe seemed close at hand, the tango was always there, and the players, each exhibiting both individuality and a fine spirit of ensemble, let us hear their own delight in it.

The one piece remaining from the original programme was Brahms’s first Piano Quartet. It’s one of the best loved of his works, containing the sort of melodies that are found in the first Piano Trio or the Op 18 Sextet.

Great delicacy distinguished the opening of the quartet, with teasing hints of the sort of tunes that follow and which soon emerged with full-blown magnificence.

The beauty of this work rests for the most part on the ensemble writing where individual instruments, or rather their players, rarely draw attention to themselves. That’s not to say that Brahms doesn’t employ them to offer contrasting feelings, as happens in the Intermezzo, where slightly disturbed strings underlie a sunnier, more spirited mood in the piano. The gypsy-style last movement drew attention to the close accord between the sisters on viola and cello, very naturally pitted at times against the piano or violin.

It was wise not to have changed this item in the programme as it was undoubtedly the most looked forward to and the performance fulfilled every hope for this concert, ending with a marvelous joyfulness.

There was long applause at the end and it was rewarded by part of the last movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat.

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