Fine violin and piano recital, of variable music, as final 2011 offering from School of Music

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G, Op 30 No 3; Martin Bresnick: Bird as Prophet for violin and piano; Messiaen: Theme and Variations for violin and piano; Schumann: Violin Sonata No 2 in D minor, Op 121

Sarita Kwok (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Friday 9 December, 7.30pm

This was the last concert presented by the New Zealand School of Music in 2011. Stephen Gibbs, who has taken over as ‘marketing and events coordinator’, and done it with spectacular success, told us that it was the 281st (or near enough to it) event open to the public this year. That includes formal concerts,  as well as master classes, student recitals, composer workshops and so on, at venues both in the two universities that jointly created the school, and in the city and the wider metropolitan area. Even though the school seems not to be performing as it might in certain areas, the arrival of distinguished new faculty members this year, together with Gibbs, augurs well, and the singular visibility that has been achieved this year in concerts and recitals, many free or at modest prices, greatly enriches our musical life.

Sarita Kwok has been a guest artist in the school in the last term; she is from Australia but did post-graduate work at Yale University where she now teaches. Her performance career has taken her round the world as concerto soloist and chamber musician. Clearly she was here through a connection with the Head of Piano Studies, Jian Liu, who also worked  at Yale.

The collaboration between the two was evidence of their having played together a good deal as well as having acquired approaches to music that were complementary. That is, in the pains taken with detail, a delicacy in handling dynamics as well as a robust, extrovert manner in the Beethoven sonata. That was evident in the emphatic, tumbling motif dominated by the piano at the start of the first movement. But there was no question of one instrument in charge; both played equally important roles as Beethoven wanted, neither merely accompanying. I felt that the dynamic variety and suppleness was never merely to offer entertaining variety, but was driven by the inner emotion of the music.

They revealed in the second movement the impression of very long and careful study, creating from a mere dance-inspired piece, a movement of great interest; the pianist, in particular invested his part with turns of phrase that added real illumination.

The rippling piano part of the final Allegro vivace seemed written for Jian Liu, so fluently did he handle it; and the violin matched him in the fast, flighty melody that leads the way. They grabbed attention by slightly prolonging the pause before the surprising modulation that precedes the coda, which brought it quickly to its end.

Martin Bresnick is professor of composition at Yale, and thus a colleague of the two musicians. Bird as Prophet is the last of twelve pieces entitled Opere della Musica Povera (‘Works of a Poor Music’). The title refers to Schumann’s well-known piano piece from the Waldszenen. Though there was some use of microtones in the early stages, otherwise there was little departure from a broadly tonal palette; it suggests the bird by means of abstract musical patterns, in rhythms that were hard to keep track of but which made sense (there is also some reference to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was known as Bird, and referred to by, among others, clarinetist Tony Scott as his prophet).

I felt that some of the significance of the piece eluded me, as its non-musical landscape tended to interfere with my hearing it simply as a musical creation; nevertheless, its inventiveness held my attention and its performance did it justice,

Though I did not know the piece by Messiaen, it had at least the advantage of a familiar name; it was a wedding present for his first wife. The opening melody was unmistakably Messiaen, with his characteristic harmonies, and though I could understand why it had not attained the fame of some of the composer’s other music, its framework, in variation form, lent it a shape and a variety of moods and tempi that maintained interest. The third (I think) variation, with staccato piano under a lyrical violin part, seemed to be the emotional centre, though the next variation, with strong hints of the last movement of The Quartet for the End of Time (‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus’) was a comforting association; the variations subside in a peaceful resolution. The rendering of this too was a gift from these two gifted, subtle and extrovert players.

Finally, Schumann’s Second Violin Sonata. He wrote three of them after 1851, five years before his death, when his musical gifts had generally declined. I know the first sonata quite well but not this or the third, and have to confess to finding this, in spite of its admirably committed performance, a thing of striving after inspiration that almost constantly eludes the composer. Schumann wrote about this work: “I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one, which I hope has turned out better”. I’m not too sure….

It can be admired from a formal point of view – its calm but arresting introduction moving to a lively Allegro (Schumann uses German tempo markings – Lebhaft) is promising enough but one waits in vain for a memorable tune to sustain the movement. All there is is rhetoric and ritual passage-work. A tune worthy of the name (of slightly Scottish flavour) finally arrives with the third, slow movement (Leise, einfach, or I suppose, ‘tranquillo, semplice’), and Kwok and Liu played it with fine elegiac warmth. The finale seems to search for a memorable theme, or two; but all Schumann finds are somewhat arid motifs; consequently it outlasts its material, and the end, in spite of the most warm-hearted efforts by the players, seems a very long time coming. And I am a true member of Schumann’s  Davidsbündler.

However, it is perhaps not fair to compare every composition that just misses an ‘excellent’ grade, to the few real masterpieces. Who actually wrote a better one through the four decades of the mid 19th century? Beethoven’s last was in 1809; Mendelssohn also missed the mark with his violin sonatas; Spohr, a violin virtuoso, left none; there’s one listed, of 1845, by Vieuxtemps, that I don’t know; Carl Rheincke wrote one about 1848; Brahms’s first was not till 1879; but Grieg’s attractive ones were written in the 1860s; Fauré’s, 1875; Saint-Saëns, 1885 and Franck’s not till 1886. In that context, Schumann’s sonatas don’t look so bad.

Considering the stature of these two musicians, and the insights they offered in all four works played, the audience at this free concert was disappointingly small.


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