Memorable concert by visiting expatriate musicians

Wellington Chamber Music

Milhaud: Suite for violin, clarinet and piano, Op.157b; Fauré: Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120; Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka Quartet (Simeon Broom, violin; Rachel Church, piano; Victoria Simonsen, cello; Sarah Masters, clarinet)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 22 April 2012, 3.00pm

These young New Zealanders have all studied in the United Kingdom, and are currently playing professionally there.  Simonsen and Masters are no strangers to the Messiaen work, having jointly won the Granada Chamber Music Competition in the UK, performing this music.  They have considerable experience playing in chamber ensembles, orchestras, and solo, in New Zealand, UK, and Europe.

Their all-French programme revealed how unlike French composers can be from one another, and it was a very satisfying collection of works, surprisingly, all written within a 20-year span.

Having in the distant past played the Milhaud work with friends (one of whom was present at this concert), I was delighted to hear it live.

The clarinet particularly was pleasing in the first movement ‘Ouverture’.  Humour, jazz and off-beat rhythms are all features of this movement.  Later, the piano and violin came into their own more.  The ‘Divertissement’ slow movement is marked by lovely interlocking parts, while the ‘Jeu’ third movement, for violin and clarinet only, is bright, lively and dance-like, with a contemplative middle section.  The ‘Introduction et final’ that ends the work is bouncy with great melodies, and ends deliciously, with a cheerful ‘good-night’.

The work was played with panache and expression; some hesitancy in the violin early on disappeared, and the joyous nature of Milhaud’s writing found full flowering.

Each item was introduced by a different member of the quartet, the information filling out what was in the programme notes.  I find this an interesting feature, becoming more common in chamber music concerts.  It helps to give a flavour to each of the players and they become not only musicians but also communicators.

The Fauré trio is very different from the previous work.  After a very ardent opening on the cello, the strings continued with mellifluous, singing quality, ably supported by a delectable piano part.

The andantino slow movement had classical interplay of melody between cello and violin, with serene supporting chords from the piano.  The music gradually became impassioned.

The final movement is somewhat idiosyncratic, and there are more nods to the twentieth century in its writing.  It is quirky at times, but very rhythmic.  The harmonic language is more varied than that of the first two movements.  It was given an admirable performance.

Before the concert, I felt it was rather soon to have another performance of Messiaen’s work, after Ensemble Liaison and Wilma Smith played it so memorably in the Wellington Town Hall less than six months ago (the concert was broadcast on RNZ Concert only about a week ago).  There was also a performance at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February last year.

However, these players were well up to the task.  Being in a smaller, more intimate space than was the October concert made the work sound less grand and monumental; on the whole I preferred the larger acoustic space.

Nevertheless, the themes of faith and spirit, and apocalypse as outlined by Simeon Broom in his introduction to the work, were amply conveyed.

The word ‘time’ has another meaning music – was this the end of time in music?  Messiaen’s modal, even plain-chant, continuous melody in much of the work has no obvious consistent time signatures, and a lack of apparent unity (see Peter Mechen’s review of the earlier concert, on this website: 29 October 2011) was somewhat overcome for me by hearing it a second time.

The character of the music is forecast in the titles of the eight movements, many of them coming from the last book of the Bible: Revelation.  Despite the lofty and dramatic themes there, this music begins with an ethereal opening of bird sounds, most notable in the high harmonic glissandi on the cello.  This first movement (Liturgy of crystal) is followed by crashingly apocalyptic sounds in the second movement (Vocalise for the angel who announces the end of time).  It moves into smooth piano and string chords seemingly arriving from profound depths, played with muted strings, before a return to the apocalypse.

The ‘Abyss of the birds’ third movement is for solo clarinet, and was originally written separately for the clarinettist the composer met at a temporary prison camp in France, before they were both transported to a Stalag at Görlitz in Germany, in 1942.  The quiet introduction is powerful in its muted simplicity.  Beautifully played, it nevertheless had less impact on me than the previous hearing, with its soloist standing on a large stage at the Wellington Town Hall.  The piece calls for a huge range of the clarinet’s notes and dynamics, all superbly rendered by Sarah Masters.

The ‘Interlude’ fourth movement is for violin, cello and clarinet.  A great array of techniques is called for; the music makes almost ecstatic pronouncements.

Movement five (In praise of the eternity of Jesus) is for cello and piano only.  A strong, serene melody on the cello has simple piano chords underpinning it.  The mood is of faith and fervour, and hope.   Again, the music depicts ecstasy and confidence, yet is sometimes poignant.  However, hope triumphs at the end.

The sixth movement (Furious dance for the seven trumpets) returns the full quartet, and is a complete contrast to what has preceded it.  Furious it may be, but it is not sheer noise.  It is played almost entirely in unison, generating a most unusual mysterious atmosphere and mood.

‘Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time’ is the title of the seventh movement.  After a placid opening, there are violent discords, then a return to the placid mood.  The violin playing in this was very fine; beauty and simplicity characterised the music.  A renewal of chaos followed, and then there are birds, the music emerging to perhaps a preview of the end of time.

Finally, the contemplative last movement (In praise of the immortality of Jesus), for violin and piano only, is calm and peaceful in the violin part (marred by a few moments of poor tone and suspect intonation), supported by chords on the piano.

Altogether, it was a memorable concert, and the clarinet playing of Sarah Masters was particularly outstanding, but all the players acquitted themselves well, and gave first-class performances severally and together.



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