A bevy of intensities – Ensemble Liaison with Wilma Smith

Chamber Music New Zealand 2011

HAYDN – Piano Trio in G Major “Gypsy Rondo”

BRAHMS – Clarinet Trio in A Minor Op.114

MESSIAEN – Quartet for the End of Time

Ensemble Liaison:

Timothy Young (piano) / Svetlana Bogosavljevic (‘cello) / David Griffiths (clarinet)

– with Wilma Smith (violin)

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 29th October 2011

Contrast was very much the going order for this concert, given by the Australian group Ensemble Liaison, with violinist Wilma Smith, in the Wellington Town Hall. The group made light of the rather over-generous acoustic and voluminous spaces of the venue, with some extremely focused and well-projected playing throughout the varied program. As well, the ear soon adjusted to the prevailing ambience, so that the sounds soon became as “normal” as at any concert.

One comes to expect certain levels of musicianship and technical proficiency from visiting artists, and the members of Ensemble Liaison delivered handsomely on all counts. Timothy Young’s piano-playing combined a soloist’s presence and focus with a chamber musician’s sensitivity throughout the evening. He was admirably partnered in all three works by ‘cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic, sonorous and supple-toned, from the largely continuo-like underpinnings of the Haydn Trio to the fractured intensities of Messiaen’s work. And clarinettist David Griffiths charmed us at first with his expressive sensitivities in Brahms, before pinning back our ears with playing of searing surety in the Messiaen Quartet.

Joining them for this series of performances in New Zealand was Wilma Smith, well-known here for her work as concertmaster with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and as leader and a founding member of the New Zealand String Quartet. She brought what a friend of mine described at the interval as “warmth and clarity” to the music, as well as an experienced chamber musician’s sensibility to the interactions with her colleagues.

Before the concert began Chamber Music New Zealand boss Euan Murdoch welcomed the audience and highlighted some aspects of next year’s programme, making particular reference to the visit by illustrious Italian ensemble I Musici, as well as that by the equally renowned Takács Quartet. A further announcement came from Wilma Smith, telling us of her wish to dedicate the concert to the memory of a recently deceased former colleague of hers from the NZSO, veteran trumpeter Gil Evans.

Haydn’s well-known G Major Piano Trio, named “Gypsy Rondo” on account of its exotically-rhythmed finale, enabled musicians and audience to”get the pitch of the hall”, the resonances bringing out Haydn’s delightful “al fresco” echoes of the forest and the hunt throughout the first movement’s variations – I wanted the opening major-key sequence repeated, so felicitous was the playing and the sense of delightful rapport between the musicians. Though the ‘cello had practically nothing thematic to do throughout, Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s playing warmed the harmonies beautifully, enabling the violin to sing and the piano to sparkle with even more sweetness and élan. Only in parts of the finale did I feel the acoustic robbed the playing of some of its finesse of detail – some of the rapidly moving figurations were but a blur, though the skin-and-hair “gypsy” sequences came across with plenty of temperament, the whole delightfully paprika-flavoured.

From rustic exuberance we moved to a more autumnal mood with Brahms’s Op.114 Clarinet Trio, the first of several works written for the famed clarinettist Richard Mühlefeld, whom the composer had heard play in the Meiningen Orchestra. David Griffiths introduced the work, making reference to Mühlefeld and his skills, and to the beauties of these later works. On the showing of his subsequent playing in the Trio I would have been happy to have heard Griffiths play all of them, including the two sonatas, in a single concert – perhaps another time! What impressed me was the beautiful transparency of his tone, the playing catching the music’s “wind-blown” quality in a number of places. With Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s dulcet ‘cello tones leading the way into many of the melodic contourings, the music’s emotive impulse was constantly maintained, Timothy Young’s piano-playing contributing a nice sense of fantastical suggestion to the proceedings.

The Adagio here delivered a beautifully-voiced dialogue between clarinet and ‘cello . Griffiths had pointed out beforehand that he and the ‘cellist were a married couple – but even Oscar Wilde, with his “washing one’s clean linen in public” remark, couldn’t have helped but approve, with such felicitous music-making on display! As well, the third movement’s ritualistic waltz-like impulses produced in this performance something at once stirring (those wonderfully ‘”arched” phrases, like uplifted festoons of roses) and surprisingly tender. True, there were passionately-expressed moments in the finale, here given full voice by the performers, but the over-riding impression was one of light-and-shade, the composer seeming more readily to trust his lyrical instincts in these later works than in much of his earlier chamber music. Upholder of the classical tradition he may have been, but the aspect and mood of some of Brahms’ later works present more lines of connection with Romanticism than perhaps the composer himself might have cared to admit.

Naturally most of the concert’s focus fell on the second half’s single work, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Though by now a twentieth-century chamber music classic, the work had eluded me up to the time of this concert, so I had no previous experiences, save some knowledge of the composer’s other music, to bring to the occasion. Reading some of the background to the work’s composition certainly heightened my expectation of hearing something that was uniquely special – and on that score I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Even so, there was for me something unsettling about it all which took me a while to come to grips with, more of which anon.

As is well known, the work was written while Messiaen was interned in a German prisoner-of war camp in Görlitz, in the Eastern German province of Silesia. Thanks to a fortuitous amalgam of humanity and circumstance on the part of both the composer’s fellow prisoners and some of his German captors, Messiaen was able to write a work that gave a lasting voice to both his own creative personality and to a representation of a moment in time interwoven by numerous strands of indomitable human spirit. In later years the composer tended to “mythologize” the circumstances surrounding the work’s first performance, exaggerating the audience numbers and the parlous state of the musical instruments. Evidence from other sources suggests that the work’s gestation and completion was as much the result of collective co-operation as of individual genius. In fact the composer’s German captors went out of their way to facilitate the work’s composition and performance, giving the music a kind of wider reference to collective human empathy, alongside the composer’s own purposes.

The “End of Time” reference by the composer in the title, while relating to to the Apocalyptic imagery contained in the Revelations of St.John seems also to illustrate in musical language the composer’s own attitude towards time – “…not as flow, but as pre-existing, revealing itself to human temporality in a series of brilliant unalike instants…”. We therefore got not a Berlioz-like or Verdi-like Apocalypse, but a more abstractly-conceived and quirkily-expressed outpouring involving elements of plainchant, birdsong and ambient resonance. In between episodes of transcendent stillness and beauty there were occasionally fierce irruptions, and dances that swung along irregular rhythmic trajectories in disarmingly unexpected ways.

It was challenging as a “long-music” concept – ironically, perhaps less so in today’s world, where the constantly-changing mini-byte is the expected mode of communication – but especially to those of us brought up on Aristotelian-like unities of dramatic action and narrative flow within a time-framework. This music simply didn’t do any of that – each of the Quartet’s eight movements had an almost stand-alone independence which had little to do with flow within time. To me there seemed at the time (!) an undermining lack of ostensible organic unity about the piece, completely at odds with the idea of the whole being greater than the sum, etc….later, after my brain had had time to catch up and reorganize its expectations, I began to feel more comfortable in retrospect with what I’d heard, accepting more readily the composer’s idea of time as “pre-existing being” encompassing our “human temporality”.

What I instantly appreciated was the playing of each musician – true, my being able to say that I thought the third-movement clarinet solo “Abyss of the Birds” was a performance highlight, in a sense defines my problem with the piece’s overall unity, but perhaps it equally points to a deficiency of analytical brain-power on my part. In any case, the movement seemed the “dark centre” of the work, the solo instrument contrasting the deep “sadness and weariness” of the ages with the “stars and rainbows and songs” of the birds. Incredible playing from David Griffiths – his instrument produced sounds from the bowels of being, as it were. Comparable moments included the fifth movement ‘cello solo, “In praise of the eternity of Jesus”, Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s beautifully rapt ‘cello playing matching intensities with her husband’s, right to the piece’s held-note conclusion. And though a couple of Wilma Smith’s violin notes weren’t pitched at exactly their mark, her playing’s overall purity and sweetness carried the day to breathtaking effect throughout the work’s final “In praise of the immortality of Jesus”. Here, as in the other movements requiring piano, Timothy Young provided all the delicacy, energy and deep sonority the music asked for.

We in the audience were, by the end, properly caught by the music’s power of communication and enthrallment, and showed our appreciation of the ensemble’s achievement accordingly.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *