Poneke Trio (Anna van der Zee – violin, Paul Mitchell – cello, Richard Mapp – piano)
Dvořák: Trio No 4 in E minor, Op 90 (Dumky); Kodály: Duo for violin and cello, Op 7; Shostakovich: Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67 (Wellington); Brahms: Piano Trio No 2 in C, Op 87 (Upper Hutt)
Two concerts: Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall and Genesis Energy Theatre, Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt
Sunday 30 September, 3pm and Monday 8 October, 7.30pm
All three members of the newly formed Poneke Trio have become familiar around Wellington: Richard Mapp over the course of many years; Anna van der Zee and Paul Mitchell more recently. It sounds like a group that has been waiting to happen, an event such as might tempt a believer to ascribe to the Almighty’s having a good day.
That was one reason for getting myself to both their concerts in Greater Wellington; the other was in order to hear both the Brahms and the Shostakovich trios, and because I had not been able to make the Wellington concert till part-way through the Dumky Trio.
One of the happiest pieces in all music opened the programme; the Dvořák trio is one of those creations that seems to have sprung fully formed into the mind of the composer, such as scarcely any composer in the century since has been inspired to write or perhaps been capable of writing.
So, I knew at once that I was in the best of hands, as the players began with a resolute tone from the cello and a gentler expression from the violin; then heartfelt chords from all three. The work consists of six movements, all between four and five minutes and in sharply varying tempi, in which Dvořák resists a temptation to elaborate too much his beguiling material, at least in a conspicuously sophisticated way; that induces the players to draw as much as possible from the music’s spirit while they have the chance.
This compression emphasises the music’s relatively informal character, that of a suite of dance-inspired pieces such as composers of the Baroque age used in their suites. Though each movement is cast in an A-B-A pattern the reprise of A is no mere repeat; and the programme note draws attention to further evidence of art concealing art in the pattern of keys from movement to movement, some clearly related while others a bit remote, such as that from D minor/major to E flat.
The well-conceived and idiomatic performance was rich in the Romantic spirit of the late 19th century.
Though written only 30 years later, the Kodály Duo for violin and cello seemed to come from an entirely different world and age. At first hearing many years ago I found it pretty alien, but it has slowly taken shape and its ‘melodies’ have become, at least, slightly familiar; though I would hardly echo the programme note’s description; after admitting that its slow acceptance was because of ‘Kodály’s idea of a tune’, it then asserts that ‘the work is rich in glorious melody’. For me, words like ‘harsh’ and ‘angular’ still come to mind, yet there is undeniably an absorbing character both in the music and certainly in this compulsive performance.
If one’s pleasure lies in finding flaws in a performance, one can almost always satisfy it by trying, and it’s not hard with such a demanding piece that calls for such persuasive advocacy. More important than perfection is evidence of sincerity and conviction on the part of the two players: that was there.
At the Sunday concert at the Ilott Theatre, Shostakovich’s Trio, Op 67, filled the second half. Perversely, an early thought was: why could Shostakovich write a piece like this piano trio, set in a time even more horrendous than that which Kodály lived through 30 years earlier, yet clothe it in sounds that touch the emotions so powerfully and involve the listener through an understandable language?
The trio played its famous opening with all the skill needed to create the foreboding atmosphere that lightens surprisingly quite soon, then continues sometimes animated, sometimes static. The second movement really showed what the trio was made of, switching from flashing energy with suppressed excitement while a sense of unease was always present, somehow at odds with the surface brilliance of the playing. I have heard the portentous piano chords that open the third movement played with just too much force, more than is needed to presage the plain dominant to tonic entry by the violin; here, Richard Mapp’s attack was just right and these players found an excellent balance. And in the clockwork rhythms that rule the last movement, the stiff-legged march theme alternating with pizzicato strings could have left its Soviet listeners in no doubt as to an underlying meaning; the strings bowed heavily, simulating shouting protest till things subsided into a more measured argument. All these nuances were captured expressively but not too emphatically to end a highly satisfying performance of a great work.
Brahms’s second piano trio was played at Upper Hutt. The opening phrase came with a warmth and unanimity of tone, at a pace that might be called languid; while I felt that Mapp was straining a little to lift the tempo at the start, I soon decided that the three were very much of one mind, not just about speeds but about the emotional colours of the piece as a whole. They were totally at home in the essentially Brahmsian, muscular and slightly sentimental first theme.
The steady pace of the Andante movement, with the almost heroic double octaves in the piano, made a memorable impression, punctuating the melody heard first on the violin; it’s a variations movement that forms the emotional heart of the whole work, and though there are always minor matters where one wonders about a balance or a phrasing detail, it was beautifully played. More taxing in a technical sense is the Scherzo, particularly for the piano and this was sparkling and pretty flawless; one of Brahms’s loveliest tunes adorns the Trio section and it was given careful, succulent exposure. Through the finale, Giocoso, the sense of jollity seems clouded and the performers did nothing to conceal that it is foolish to expect happiness to last, and it is the movement’s nobility and seriousness that left the strongest impression from this performance.
It’s timely again to remark on the pleasure of simply attending concerts at the arts centre in Upper Hutt, with its spaciousness, its nice café and an appropriately sized auditorium with agreeable acoustics – and no parking problems, though the railway station, too, is close by.