Interesting and admirable piano trios from NZSO players at St Mark’s Lower Hutt

Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat, Op.99, D.898, first movement, (allegro moderato)
Shostakovich: Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, 3rd and 4th movements (largo-allegretto)

Anne Loeser, violin, Sally Pollard, cello, Rachel Thomson, piano

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 20 June, 12.15pm

A superb concert by professional musicians, with an interesting programme greeted the large number of people in St. Mark’s Church.  This was the group’s first performance together; let’s hope that there will be many more.  The string players both perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, while Rachel Thomson plays chamber music with other ensembles, accompanies singers, and provides orchestral piano when required by the NZSO.

One of the features was the perfect balance between the instruments; the church’s excellent acoustics enhanced the sound from the instruments, which all produced beautiful timbre.

The attractive Schubert movement was given a dynamic performance, with lovely singing tone on piano as well as on the other instruments, and exquisite shading.  The alternating benign and stormy moods in the development section of the movement were nuanced superbly.

There was fine contrast between the legato passages and those of separated notes.  There were occasional slight intonation lapses, but that is all they were.  This was Schubert at his most serene – but that serenity was frequently interrupted by other moods.

After the warm applause, Rachel Thomson spoke some words describing this movement, and also the two Shostakovich movements that followed.

Although the composer wrote 15 string quartets, he wrote only two piano trios; this one dates from 1944.  The largo is in the form of a passacaglia, and is the centre-piece of the entire work.  In places it is like an impassioned lament (written as it was after, and possibly also during the siege of Leningrad, where the composer lived and worked, although he was evacuated out of the city some time after the siege by Nazi forces began).

The third movement begins with slow, deep chords on the piano, then the violin joins in with a solemn, not to say sad, rejoinder.  The dark quality is even more enhanced when the cello enters. There is almost unbearable sadness at times, and sometimes an eerie quality.

The work goes straight into the last movement’s intriguing pizzicato dances, with a repetitive theme that I’ll try to render: daaah-de-dah-dah-dah-dah, first stated on the piano, in unison octaves.  The whole movement is strongly emotional, yet brittle and anxious, full of frenetic energy and agitation, above incessant beats on the piano, like a drum.  Melodies are sometimes the same between the players; sometimes the instruments seem to go their separate ways for a time.

There is ponticello on the strings, before they break into a strong reiteration of the theme, and of the secondary melody, incorporating harmonics on the strings.  The close brings back the solemn piano chords from the third movement, with harmonics again on the strings, as well as strumming.  Then the work simply ends, almost in mid-air.

These were fine, skilled musicians who made the most of the music and brought out the heart of the composers’ intentions.  Their performances were much appreciated by the audience.


Viola students of New Zealand School of Music on show at St Andrew’s

New Zealand School of Music: viola students  – Alexa Thompson, Vincent Hardaker, Alice McIvor and John Roxburgh

Music by Carl Stamitz, Glinka, Hindemith, Walton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 June, 12.15pm

This lunchtime recital was a showcase of four viola students, taught variously by Donald Maurice, Claudine Bigelow and Gillian Ansell.

Three of the four pieces were of parts of the whole. The first and second movements only of Carl Stamitz’s Concerto in D were enough, which was enough to exhibit the strength’s of Alexa Thompson, large tone, confident, relishing the big sound from her C string; inevitably there were minor intonation blemishes.

The younger Stamitz was a few years older than Mozart and echoes of his genius-contemporary, or rather, just the idiom of the period, were to be heard though, with piano accompaniments from Douglas Mews, the orchestral character was hard to gauge; the viola cadenzas however might have been envied by Mozart.  It’s melodious music but the memorableness of the latter’s melodies was hardly there.

Carl Stamitz’s music seems not to have been subject to modern cataloguing, judging by what I can find on the Internet; one site lists a viola concerto in D as his Opus 1 – this may be it.

Vincent Hardaker played just the third movement of a viola sonata by Glinka, said in the notes to sound thoroughly Russian. What impressed me however was the almost complete absence of Russian sound, either in melody or rhythm, and there was little to suggest that the composer was other than a talented student of Mozart and his lesser successors like Spohr, Ries or Hummel, for Glinka was a comfortably-off, cosmopolitan composer who was a popular figure in west European musical circles, though when he returned to Russia in the mid-1830s he was inspired to write his two great Russian operas. But his other music remained largely west European in character (pace Vladimir Putin).

Vincent was another confident, fluent player who treated the piece as a serious composition, from a composer quite at home in the classical/romantic style.

The third piece was by the most famous violist/composer of the 20th century – Hindemith. Trauermusik, which the programme note explained as the piece the composer wrote hurriedly for a London concert just after George V’s death in 1936. In four short sections, it starts with the orchestra (piano), and to begin with, sounds as if Hindemith was rather hoping that a main idea would come to him as he went along. Alice McIvor, a second year student like the two earlier players, found the right tone and her playing led to music that conveyed something of a spirit of real mourning emerge. More characteristic Hindemith sounds appear in the second movement in a  faster 3/8 tempo. She played carefully, warmly, overcoming the lack of orchestral support which was a more serious lack here than in the Stamitz. Nevertheless, Douglas Mews’s accompaniment was as well coloured and expressive here as it had been in the pieces from earlier eras.

The last piece was the Viola Concerto by Hindemith’s near-contemporary William Walton, written at Thomas Beecham’s suggestion for Lionel Tertis, the father of modern viola playing (at least in the English-speaking world). Surprisingly, Tertis totally failed to perceive its greatness and beauty and ‘rejected it by return of post’.

It’s one of Walton’s major works, his first to mark out his stature as a really important composer; and one of the relatively few really successful large-scale symphonic works, written largely in the ‘great tradition’ (to borrow literary critic F R Leavis’s term), to have come from the middle years of the 20th century. It was played by the NZSO with Nigel Kennedy in 1987 and with Tabea Zimmermann in 1995.

Two players shared the job; masters student John Roxburgh took the first two movements and Alice McIvor returned to play the last. Merely to contemplate a great work of this kind, in which the orchestral element is so important, shows considerable courage, even temerity, and I could not pretend to have had the sort of experience that I’d have had with a full-scale performance. But as far as was possible, the two violists gave it a brave and understanding exposure; and of course it was good to hear it live (for me live performance, unless grossly incompetent, is generally more satisfying than a recording), if from only two instead of 80-odd instruments; it’s 17 years since an orchestral performance here. (And so, it led to the plucking from my shelves of the splendid Kennedy/Previn/RPO recording which did sound a bit different).

It might not have been kind to have the two violists sharing the undertaking for I thought McIvor had the slight edge when it came to confidence and grasping the emotional essence of the music, but that might have been rather on account of the intrinsic character of the slow movement. But it was good to end this short concert with such a substantial piece, which did demonstrate the ambitious standards and the quality of both teachers and students at the New Zealand School of Music.