Penultimate lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s: delightful cello and piano programme

Schumann: Fantasy pieces, Op. 73
Barbara Heller: Lalai, lullaby to awaken you
De Falla: Suite Populaire Espagnole
Janáček:  A Leaf Blown Away
Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances
Arnold Trowell: Caprice Op.20 no.6

Robert Ibell (cello), Catherine McKay (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 12 December 2012, 12.15pm

The pieces by Schumann that opened this programme are quite well-known.    A beautiful singing tone from the cello received sensitive accompaniment on the piano, with subtle variation of tone and touch.  The playing was of an appropriately romantic character on both instruments, full of expression and beautifully articulated, every note having a chance to speak.  The renditions followed the titles of the pieces, which in English are ‘Tender with expression’; ‘Lively, light’; ‘Quick and with fire’.

Originally written for clarinet and piano, they were arranged by the composer for cello and piano.  They received an exemplary performance.

At this point Robert Ibell spoke to the audience, briefly but very clearly introducing the varied programme, much of which consisted of arrangements, but some were of these arrangements were by their composers.

Next came a contemporary composition by a German composer.  The song on which it was based was a resistance song from Iran in the Shah’s era, and was written to commemorate women persecuted in that era, and then murdered by the subsequent hard-line Moslem regime.  Robert Ibell showed passion in rendering the simple opening melody, and then the strong, highly rhythmic chords and discords that followed, while the pianist plucked very low strings on the piano.

In the third part, the pianist both played and plucked the strings, without the cello, and finally both instruments played what was largely, but not exactly, a repeat of the first section.  The emotion of the piece was not, in the main, worn on the sleeve, but built up subtly through unusual figures and rhythms.

De Falla’s lively suite is well-known in his original sung version from which this one was arranged.  I must admit that I find such arrangements to be lesser creations; the music of songs is inspired by the words of poems, and not to have the latter takes away the relationship to the meaning and essential expression of the songs, not to mention the particular cadences and timbres of the Spanish language, in this case.  Nevertheless, this was very eloquent and articulate playing, and the performance displayed de Falla’s great gifts as a composer.

The opening song (giving them their English titles) was ‘The Moorish Cloth’; it was lively, with lots of pizzicato, but could not convey the irony of the original words.  It was followed by ‘Lullaby’, a beautifully gentle contrast to the previous song (no.5 in my recording of the songs), simple in its expression.  ‘Song’ (no.6 in the original sequence) was spirited and gentle by turns, and is perhaps my favourite.  Its lilting rhythm was almost soporific.

‘Jota’, an Aragon-inspired piece, featured delightful cross-rhythms and strumming contrasted with smooth passages; the story of a lover whose mother disapproves of the relationship.  It was quite gorgeous, and exploited the cello’s versatility between singing and percussive effects.

‘Asturian Song’  is a thoughtful, slow lament, originally placed before the ‘Jota’.  It’s quiet and pensive music was most effective.  Finally, the rumbustious ‘Polo’ had much hard work for the piano to do – in fact it was demanding for both musicians, and gave a vivacious ending to the suite.

Janáček, along wih his fellow countryman Dvořák, wrote for the now-despised harmonium: the ordinary family’s instrument that was smaller and probably cheaper than the piano and therefore popular in homes.  One could pretend to be playing a pipe organ, but for the wheezy tone!  Things have gone full circle; I recall hearing a Dvořák composition recently where the harmonium part was played on chamber pipe organ!  This composition, ‘A Leaf Blown Away’,  translated well to the cello and piano.  It was a soulful and telling piece.

Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are well-known and popular, both in the original piano setting and in the composer’s orchestrations.  The cello and piano arrangement was by Luigi de Silva.  After the opening ‘Stick Dance’ came ‘Sash Dance’ and ‘In One Spot’; two difficult and high-pitched pieces, requiring the cellist to alternate between playing the strings normally, and playing harmonics.  The effect was delightful, as indeed was the whole performance.  After ‘Horn Dance’ and ‘Romanian Polka’ came ‘Fast Dance’, robust with pizzicato and bowing alternating, and a dynamic piano part.

The final piece was by Arnold Trowell, who gives the lie to the oft-repeated statement that Douglas Lilburn was our first serious composer – though some will allow Alfred Hill a look-in, even though he spent the greater part of his productive life in Australia.  This was no fledgling piece, being part of Trowell’s Opus 20.  It must be admitted that the composer spent most of his life in England from the age of 16, and that he is perhaps better known as a friend of Katherine Mansfield, his brother Garnet being perhaps more than a friend.

Trowell was a professor of cello at two London music colleges, and wrote a lot of music for cello and piano.  This was a very competent piece, featuring light and shade, somewhat Elgarian, but lively and tuneful, and very fast.

After the concert, an elderly friend said to me “How can he make the cello sound like a whole orchestra?”   Answer: with the vivid, technically assured playing of both Robert Ibell and his accompanist Catherine McKay, he can.  It is worth noting that Robert Ibell is probably the only NZSO member who regularly plays in these lunchtime concerts, for which there are no artists’ fees.  As the concert organiser, Marjan van Waardenberg said in a recent email “All the artists… participate feelessly in this series.”


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