Interesting interdisciplinary chamber music exploration led by violinist Jack Liebeck and friends

Einstein’s Universe (Chamber Music New Zealand)

Jack Liebeck (violin) and Stephen De Pledge (piano) with Victoria Sayles (violin), Julia Joyce (viola) and Andrew Joyce (cello)

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G, Op 30 no 3
Bloch: Three Nocturnes for piano trio (1924)
Brahms: Sonata movement (the FAE sonata) – Scherzo
Samuel Holloway: Matter
Brahms: Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 60

Wellington Town Hall

Tuesday 23 July, 8pm

This unusual conjunction of music and science derives from a meeting and consequent friendship between violinist Jack Liebeck and Professor Brian Foster, a distinguished physicist and fellow of the Royal Society.

Liebeck is interested in science and Foster in music (he is a capable amateur violinist) and their complementary interests led to their meeting in 2003; in 2005, the World Year of Physics, they dreamed up a concert-cum-lecture idea that involved the exploration of Einstein’s love of music and his performance gifts (violin and piano).

It caught on and Liebeck says it keeps being requested. With De Pledge, he did a tour of New Zealand in 2009. Strangely, though de Pledge gave a solo piano recital in the Town Hall, the pair played together only at Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt (I heard them at the Expressions Centre in Upper Hutt). And while Foster was also, apparently, in New Zealand in 2009, I am not aware that an Einstein concert performance was given here. Liebeck has also played with the Auckland Philharmonia.

The publicity surrounding this tour to ten centres, from Auckland to Invercargill, would suggest that Liebeck’s involvement with Einstein and science is a major element in his performing career. But I can see no mention of these in his website apart from his being Artistic Director of the Oxford May Music Festival, a festival of Music, Science and the Arts. On the other hand the website gives an illuminating picture of the range of music and places in which he plays. It suggests that it could be very rewarding to bring him back with one of the chamber ensembles that he works with or has created.

The major Einstein element was an hour-and-a-half illustrated talk before the concert by Professor Foster which, unfortunately, I could not get to. There Liebeck was on hand to play examples of the music that Einstein was thought to have loved and played: most importantly Bach and Mozart. The Einstein connection of the recital itself was rather more tenuous of course. We could be happy to accept Beethoven’s Op 30 No 3 as much loved by the physicist and it was a marvellous opening, displaying a finesse, subtlety in the infinite range of dynamics and articulations that both the players brought to it; an urgency combined with delicacy and restraint in the first movement, with delicious undulatings from the piano whisperings from the violin. The middle movement, the minuet, introduced a sombre tone, a charming waywardness that teased with a sense of being adrift.

The fact that members of the Royal Society of New Zealand had been given tickets meant the presence of many unfamiliar with chamber music – perhaps with classical music and its shape, generally; for applause broke out at the end of each movement. That was OK at the extrovert end of the first, but
the second ended in a spirit of ethereal breathlessness where I hoped for silence; we didn’t get that. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay for the possible awakening of a few unbelievers to The Way and The Truth.

Then came the Scherzo movement that Brahms contributed to a collaborative violin sonata written with Schumann and one of Schumann’s pupils, Albert Dietrich, in 1853. The 20-year-old young genius can clearly be heard. It blossomed at the hands of these two ultra-refined musicians who could bring so
much colour and timbral fascination to it: De Pledge produced sounds from the piano that even hinted at a glockenspiel.

A more direct link between the players and Einstein came with Bloch’s Three Nocturnes; he was President of the Ernest Bloch Society (Professor Foster is vice president of the Bloch Society). These pieces were played by De Pledge with Victoria Sayles on violin and Andrew Joyce on the cello, giving scrupulous attention to the markedly different character of each nocturne; the last was rather more boisterous than one might want when trying to sleep. I had not come across them before and they rather modified my earlier impression of Bloch’s musical character. They are so charming and, I imagine, so delightfully rewarding for the players that they deserve to be born in mind by piano trios looking for different repertoire.

Before the interval came the work commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand from the current Mozart Fellow at Otago University, Samuel Holloway. It was a piano quartet, with Victoria Sayles taking her husband’s place on the violin, plus Julia and Andrew Joyce. Jack Liebeck acted as conductor through the music whose textures were so insubstantial and the rhythms hard to define.

It picked up the theme of the programme: Matter; taking seriously the task of finding a way of simulating in music the atomic particle structure of matter, through the use of what a decade or more ago would have been referred to rudely as ‘plinck-plonk’ music: such thoughts were dispelled very quickly. It’s largely atonal, widely spaced, staccato note sequences, mainly subdued in dynamics, with not much (any?) melodic invention. Yet the effect was strangely beguiling and even though not much happened in the sense of recognizable development or cyclical evolution, it created suspense that was so emotionally coherent that it was possible to gage intuitively how and when it would end, some time before it did. Though I do not actively pursue music of this character, I found it curiously engaging, partly as a result of the thoroughly studied, sensitive and engrossing performance.

After the interval we returned to standard repertoire. Brahms wrote three piano quartets; this was not the familiar and best-loved of them perhaps (that’s the G minor, Op 25), but written about 20 years later. (The core players returned: Liebeck and De Pledge, Julia and Andrew Joyce). The third quartet, also in a minor key, C minor, is more typically sombre and is not, till the gorgeous Andante third movement, furnished with the immediate melodic delights that the first quartet enjoys.

The Scherzo second movement doesn’t shift from the minor tonality even though its rhythm is energetic. The texture becomes symphonic, some might use the word dense, but the performance was always marked by the clean playing in an ideal acoustic. It’s the third movement that makes an unorthodox tonal shift from C minor to E major (not the relative major which would be E flat), so making the move to a sunnier landscape, with its quite rapturous melody, more dramatic. Brahms knew he had a ‘trouvaille’ and the players knew it too.

The last movement, in which musicologists have spotted borrowings and references of several kinds, returns to a degree of complexity which some might ascribe to a melodically barren moment.  Indeed, it gave Brahms a great deal of trouble, shown in one aspect in his reference to Goethe’s Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers). Because that reference seems to me quite pregnant, let me quote
a few lines from a website:

“A letter from Brahms, sent with the manuscript to Theodor Billroth includes the following enigmatic comment: ‘the quartet has communicated itself to me only in the strangest ways…For instance, the illustration to the last chapter of the man in the blue frock and yellow waistcoat.’ This refers, somewhat obliquely, to Goethe’s Werther, which Brahms admired. Meanwhile, he remained deeply dissatisfied with the work, and wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock, ‘you may attach a picture on the title page, i.e.
a head with the pistol before it’.” Last month, in Germany, I picked up a copy of Werther which has always been seen as a key literary impulse of the Romantic movement. Inter alia, it has been blamed as the original driver of copy-cat suicides.

So there were several reasons for my listening with great interest to the music and its scrupulous and illuminating performance, and a delight in the entire concert.





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