NZSM Hunter Concert Series: Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D 956 and Tchaikovsky’s sextet, Souvenir de Florence, Op 70
Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Martin Riseley (violins), Julia Joyce and Donald Maurice (violas), Andrew Joyce and Inbal Megiddo (cellos)
Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University
Thursday 20 October, 7.30pm
I often feel, as I sit at the computer after getting home from a concert, that all I want to say is something like: ‘this evening several gifted musicians, after conscientious rehearsing, gave beautiful performances of marvellous music – perhaps an acknowledged masterpiece – that has been handed down to us by scores of music lovers, composed 100, 200, 300 ago by gifted composers who were intent above all on giving musical stimulation and pleasure to their audiences”.
And it often seems churlish and inappropriate to have listened with such deliberate critical attention, seeking flaws, that I would feel the need to remark on some minor defect, possibly merely a difference in tempo, in dynamic shifts or emphasis, or some aspect that could perhaps be compared unfavourably with another performance.
Schubert’s Quintet in C is such a sublime piece that it can withstand quite a wide variety of approaches to its performance, even performances that have distinct shortcomings. The music is that much greater than any individual performance.
The music that one heard early in one’s life tends to remain clearly connected with the place and circumstances of its hearing, and that is probably true for most people’s first hearing of this quintet. For me it was at the house of a friend I’d made in Stage I Latin classes at Victoria University in 1953. Though it moved me deeply, I didn’t then have enough breadth of musical experience really to realize what a masterpiece it was, an understanding that has arisen over many years.
On Thursday evening, the performance by these musicians – three NZSO principals and three leading School of Music faculty members, arguably among the finest players of their instruments in the country – was so deeply felt and generally so technically admirable that the very minor smudges had no impact on me at all; in fact in the face of such beautiful playing, it seemed an impertinence even to have registered them.
Schubert’s greatest works are full of melody that seems to flow endlessly, and in such a natural, organic manner to create music whose structural complexity seems to have sprung fully formed from the mind of the composer, yet at the same time it is of breathtaking simplicity. One of its features is the equality accorded to each of the five instruments. In earlier chamber music, the first violin usually had a leading role, enjoyed most of the tunes in their shapeliest state and was given most of the opportunities for virtuosity. But with Schubert the tunes move from one player to another, reflecting the French Revolution’s égalité, and the tunes themselves seem easily confused with what might otherwise be called accompaniments.
The Adagio is the most wondrous movement where, after several minutes of intense elegiac beauty, an agitated phase arises, led by tormented pulses from the two cellos that seems to express determination, against all grief, to live life to the full.
The Scherzo gives prominence to some hard bowing by the two cellos, and strong rhythms, but the Trio, which usually offers something of a rhythmic and tonal contrast returned the music to the deeply melancholy spirit of the Adagio, interesting that the main theme is played by viola and cello – Julia and Andrew Joyce – in a duet that one felt, by just listening to the rapturous beauty that the pair produced, was to be intruding on a very private communion.
I always wonder why we need a last movement, usually fast and happy, of a deeply meditative piece like this; is Schubert merely conforming with convention? But, apart from providing the structural counterweight to the first movement, it justifies its place by means of its spirited energy and the accomplished fugal passages that somehow produce a sense of intellectual and emotional depth.
The concert was given the title, 3+2+1. What did this mean? I guess, the three NZSO players, plus the two instrumental teachers from the School of Music who took part in the Schubert and finally, the addition of violist and professor at the school, Donald Maurice, as the sixth voice in the Tchaikovsky.
The front of the programme was the striking reproduction of a make-believe scene, a painting by Domenico Mileto called Trompe l’oeil, depicting Florence, through a Renaissance arch with the Duomo prominent in the middle distance.
Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence suffers somewhat, especially in the minds of chamber music devotees, from the lingering notion that Tchaikovsky’s melodic fecundity has to indicate a less serious composer, and less capable of complex, deep musical manipulations. But its performance in the company of Schubert ought to dispel such ideas, for in Schubert’s no more than 15 years, not even Tchaikovsky created such a huge body of beautiful, melodious music.
Players changed places for this: Martin Riseley now took the first violin position and Inbal Megiddo and Andrew Joyce changed places. The Souvenir is indeed so replete with gorgeous lyrical melody that at times seems almost surreal, but it certainly reflects the composer’s love of Italy.
This piece seemed to lend itself more to solo highlights, some long-breathed melodies like Julia Joyce’s big tune in the first movement, some more in the nature of accompanying motifs such as Donald Maurice’s a little later. Martin Riseley’s vigorous and delightful playing of a prominent melody enlivened the first movement; his playing was showcased again in the second movement, against pizzicato from the other instruments, who soon pick up their bows. Andrew Joyce had another beautiful solo melody to himself before it was taken up by Riseley and Maurice again. The third movement, marked Allegretto rather than Scherzo till a sudden Vivace episode, was played brilliantly, in high spirits; but the dance-like music was in the Finale – Allegro con brio e vivace – which offered lively solo opportunities to all players. This was so brilliantly delivered that the audience erupted with long applause and even some shouting, that recalled the six players four times.