Worlds of difference from the NZ Trio

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

NZ TRIO – Old World : New World

ERICH KORNGOLD – Piano Trio Op.1 /  CLAIRE COWAN – Subtle Dances

BRIGHT SHENG – 4 Movements for Piano Trio

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – PIano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op.67

NZ Trio – Justine Cormack (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)

Town Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 15th May, 2013

It took me a while to “settle in” to the Town Hall’s more-than-ample sound-spaces for this concert – the NZ Trio had daringly opted to begin with Korngold’s Op.1 Piano Trio, music that called for plenty of rich, vibrant and well-uphostered sounds from the ensemble. Despite the vigour with which the players began the piece, I thought that the amplitude of the acoustic seemed at first to dwarf the players’ tones. As well, certain musical detailings sounded as though closer proximities were needed in order to make their effect (Justine Cormack’s thrummings just before the opening’s repeat here became little more than a physical gesture), so that I felt something of the music’s flavour and variety wasn’t getting through. In fact, the dialogues involving violin and ‘cello at first resembled the exchanges between a couple of faded beauties reminiscing about old times – a feeling which I thought simply wouldn’t have been in accord with a youthful composer’s freshly-wrought impulses.

However, once my ears had become used to this particular sound-world (“gotten on the wavelength”, would have been my generation’s chic expression for the phenomenon) I was better able to appreciate what the NZ Trio was doing, and enjoy the explorations of contrasts which throughout the first movement swing wholeheartedly between impassioned exchange and wistful stillness. By the end, I thought the players had caught the essence of things, summed up by what came to us as almost an ecstasy of sustained arco and pizzicato sounds over the final measures .

A lively, mischievous and angular Scherzo with its sultry Trio followed, compounding my amazement at its thirteen year-old composer’s prodigious creativities. It made me think of conductor Water Damrosch’s celebrated response regarding a youthful work of Aaron Copland’s, a remark (made straight after a performance of the work to its audience) that stated its composer would eventually be “capable of committing murder”. Naturally, Copland didn’t follow up the suggestion, and (as far as I’m aware) neither did Korngold undertake any such venture.

The slow movement’s opening ‘cello solo, lovingly played by Ashley Brown, brought out the music’s reiterating “dying fall”, with exciting, surging “road-music” contrasts in places. The same idea was present in the finale as well, ballade-like in its opening presentation, though under siege from certain angularities. The Trio’s big-boned forward drive swept the music’s changes along, the players alive to all of the music’s possibilities, engaging our sensibilities and giving us no doubt as to why its composer would have been regarded as such a “wunderkind” at the time.

In the light of Korngold’s youthful efforts, it was interesting to read New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s thoughts regarding the composition of her work for Piano Trio, Subtle Dances. I liked her connection between her “intuitive” approach to composition and the relationship between composer, performers and audiences, and their respective places in the music’s “space”. I wondered, after reading these words, to what extent the work of a gifted thirteen year-old Viennese composer might have, however subconsciously, been similarly guided by intuition.

Claire Cowan characterized the first part of her work as “a rhythmical and passionate interlocking of playful lines”, but included a warning of the danger or risk element in such undertakings as well. The music awakened like a simple organism’s first, exploratory pulsings, with firstly the ‘cello and then violin exchanging pizzicato notes, and the piano adding a voice. The string-players tapped their soundboxes, gradually evolving an off-beat rhythm, decorated by piano figurations. When the violin joined the piano one got a sense of the composer’s “passionate interlocking” – as angst-filled as something bluesy, without being the blues…something ethnic, with a pronounced and engaging rhythmic trajectory.

It all stopped abruptly and gave way to the second movement’s be slow and lie low. A deep and wide world of inner feeling gradually settled on everything as the slow-motion dance spread its soft, shimmering silences around and about, the stillness tingling with magical harmonies. The change to the following movement was as marked as the previous transition, Sarah Watkins’ piano resounding splendidly like gamelan, and her companions supporting the piano with richly-wrought string lines, tremolandi and ostinati creating both vast open spaces and insistently claustrophobic textures at one and the same time, fitting Claire Cowan’s title for the movement, nerve lines. What a gift for sonorities this composer has!

Wisely, the Trio gave us some breathing-space in the form of an interval before serving us up with some more strongly-flavoured though differently-inspired evocations – these were the four movements of Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Piano Trio. The composer wanted to re-explore a work for piano solo that he wrote in 1988, called My Song, reworking the musical material, and developing further his idea of bringing aspects of eastern and western art-music together. The first movement gave us birdsong, the strings’ notes gliding across spacious, airy textures. The instruments played “concurrently” rather than together, with winsome glissandi, capturing an early-morning ambience – a truly other-worldly effect, supported by the pianist reaching into the piano and softly plucking strings.

Then came a vigorous dance-like song, Sarah Watkins’ piano excitably fetching up tones from out of the instruments’ depths, and the strings with glissandi and portamenti again having an airborne quality, over surges of rhythmic energy. A beautiful shimmer of resonance sounded like an echo at the piece’s end. In contrast, the biting, driving rhythms of the “savage dance” dug into the earth, recalling similar tones of Bartok’s from his strings, percussion and celesta music. The final Nostalgia created sounds which unlocked memories of things long ago or far away, and encouraged a longing for those things to come again. The piano and strings played delicately-counterpointed lines whose resonances were allowed to drift evocatively into the imagination’s distances – beautiful!

And finally, to Shostakovich, and to a work written by the composer in memory of a close friend, who had died during 1944. Shostakovich’s particular creative intensities seemed to find the fullest expression in chamber music, and this Trio was no exception. It seemed to me that, in the first movement, there was a kind of bringing-together, the ‘cello representing something exotic, more other-worldly, and violin and piano bringing aspects of a contrapuntal framework to the exercise. Ashley Brown’s ‘cello-playing again demonstrated remarkable sensitivity, with stratospheric figurations involving haunting harmonics – it seemed as though the sounds were being “offered up” by the composer, as some kind of pre-arranged sacrificial ritual, enacted through that most severe of all forms, a fugue.

The Scherzo was a characteristically vigorous piece, both exuberant and frenzied, with rushing, upwardly-rollling figures and heavy-footed, angular stampings, the whole suggesting that there’s sometimes a fine line between enjoyment and obsessiveness. Justine Cormack’s violin lead the way with gutsy, unflinching gestures that kept energies and intensities on the boil. Afterwards, the largo’s monumental opening piano chords took us to the composer’s wellside of grief, the strings at one in their concerted lament – the dance-like opening of the finale, and its progression into and through harrowing realms merely underlined the desperation of things for Shostakovich, and the extent of his own grim resignation in the face of it all. The NZ Trio gave its all, or so it seemed – after such ordeals, the final quiet string and piano arpeggios and chords in an exhausted E major came less as relief and more as affirmation of something indestructible to be grasped against all odds.




















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