Unfortunate programme change does ensemble no favours

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

Mozart: Piano quartet in G minor, K.478
Rachmaninov: Andante from cello sonata
Handel – Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor
Antony Verner: The hill where the wind dances
Dvořàk: Piano quartet in E flat

MELER ensemble: Josef Špaček (violin), Andrew Tyson (piano), Amanda Verner (viola), Aleisha Verner (cello)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 11 August 2011

There was much to delight in Chamber Music Hutt Valley’s last 2011 concert. Unfortunately, there were matters to be less pleased about, also.

The programme was changed without notice; the audience was told of the changed items just before they were played. If there were extenuating circumstances, we were not informed of them. I’m sure most of the audience were as displeased as I was not to hear the Turina piano quartet that was advertised. I was particularly disappointed not to be able to hear the Schumann piano quartet Op.47 played; I am particularly fond of it, and was looking forward to a rare opportunity to hear it live.

Coming on top of a radical change to the advertised programme this group was to play for the Wellington Chamber Music Society on 21 August (originally to have been with a different pianist), this seemed unprofessional.

The second problem affected the Mozart work particularly, but also others. The floor of the stage is varnished and quite highly polished, making the tone from the piano often far too percussive. The players didn’t adjust their sound to the small venue, and I found the piano really hard on the ears sometimes. This problem can occur at the Adam Concert Room and St. Andrew’s on The Terrace, too. In those two venues some performers (the more perceptive ones, in my view!) use a large cloth directly under the piano. Perhaps the problem could have been lessened in this bright, dry acoustic by having the piano lid lower.

The familiar Mozart quartet suffered from the piano being too dominant, meaning the ensemble frequently did not jell; the strings were too submissive to the piano. One could hear too much of the mechanics of the piano. Andrew Tyson could play quietly; when he did, the ensemble was fine, barring a few deviations in intonation from the strings in the first movement But the loud was too loud, even in the andante movement. Here, Josef Špaček had more opportunity to shine than in the first movement, and the ensemble was better.

This performance did not seize me with the beauty of Mozart’s music.

Rachmaninov’s andante proved to be very romantic, especially for the cello. Again the piano was clattery, detracting from the beauty of the music and from Aleisha Verner’s performance of it.

This was followed by Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a theme from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432, for violin and viola duo. The work develops into a virtuoso effort for both instruments, incorporating double-stopping, spiccato, sul ponticello, and other techniques. Despite its brilliance, it does not lose the subject theme, and is always expressive. There was a strong, warm sound from the viola; in this acoustic, the violin sometimes sounded squeaky in the upper register. The accord between the two players was excellent (they played standing, which seemed to give them greater freedom), and strong chords in harmony towards the end were most striking. This was very fine playing from both performers. Of course, there were no programme notes for these two pieces, nor for the last item on the programme. The excellent notes on Turina and Schumann were wasted.

It was intriguing to have a piece from the brother of the two New Zealanders in the quartet (Antony Verner). Based on the experience of Wellington weather, as outlined in the elegant programme note by the composer, the piece was mainly gentle (now, don’t express surprise!). It opened with the strings describing the wind, then the piano joined in with raindrops. The string parts were quite adventurous, the piano less so. There were no piano chords, so is was neither percussive nor too loud. Tyson played with great delicacy. Although the notes described a “clima[c]tic point where you feel the wind buffeting all around you, before it dies away slowly moving back to the still calm after a storm”, the storm was very mild compared with some literal storms we have experienced recently. It was a very pleasing piece of music, superbly played.

The Dvořàk piano quartet was not a work I was familiar with. The mellow sound from the strings was again, from time to time, overcome by ear-shattering sounds from the piano. The second movement featured a beautiful cello solo with piano while the other instruments played pizzicato. When the other strings began their bowed passage, cello and piano played pianissimo. This was followed by an exciting fast passage, before the solo cello sequence returned. Here, there was great delicacy on the piano.

This was followed in turn by a very rhythmic passage of some complexity, with the piano playing forte again, before it all subsided at the end of the movement.

The third movement opened with a waltz-like dance, including some interesting passages with the instruments interspersing. The use of other than diatonic scales recalled the Czech folk music which the composer often incorporated in his compositions. Then the waltz was decorated on the piano, with pizzicato accompaniment from the strings. The dance changed to a jolly, rustic one, then returned to the original theme, with variations.

The finale was a fast and furious jig, incorporating much interplay between instruments, and some delightful piano passages. There was much variety, and some superb violin playing. A change to a minor key gave way to the bold, sparkling ending – again overwhelmed by the piano.

It is great to hear such young people as these playing at a high level of excellence. In another venue they will doubtless be heard to better advantage, and their true skill and excellence should reveal themselves fully.

A better attendance would have gratified both the players and Chamber Music Hutt Valley. The Melers play again on Sunday, 14 August in the Memorial Hall, Waikanae at 2.30pm, and in the Ilott Theatre in Wellington on Sunday, 21 August at 3pm.

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