NZ Trio (Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano)
Stuart Greenbaum: 800 Million Heartbeats
Samuel Holloway: Stapes (2005)
John Psathas: Corybas (2012)
Anton Arensky: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 32
City Gallery Wellington
Tuesday 27 August, 7pm
Against the background of Shane Cotton’s huge canvases depicting Maori heads and related images, the NZ Trio projected a distinctly more civilized impression. The lighting was vivid white, like the walls, and the air-conditioning, offering a hush that not inappropriately suggested a calm sea voyage, here, in one of the world’s most climatically dramatic capitals.
But the opening piece, by 47-year-old Australian Stuart Greenbaum, spoke nothing of the elements, nothing of the fractionated style of the new avant-garde (which was more emphatically represented by Samuel Holloway’s piece that followed). The title is taken from the notion that life can be measured by heartbeats; a normal life would be accompanied by far more than 800 million heartbeats, perhaps four times as many, but the composer remarks than the ‘actual figure is only nominal’; perhaps ‘artbitrary’ would be a better word.
It opened with quiet, rolling arpeggios on the piano, becoming a steady, quiet ostinato, varied as pianist Sarah Watkins, occasionally leaning into the piano, passed her fingers softly across the piano strings. Violin and cello added faster figurations but did not disturb the basic tempo. The music is unassertive, and gently romantic in character. Listening to music that is new to me, influences usually suggest themselves. The first to occur to me was fellow Australian Ross Edwards, whose humanly lyrical music is attractive and embracing; then there’s American George Rochberg who exiled himself from the then orthodoxy with his rejection of the avant-garde; and various minimalist composers such as the Latvian Georgs Pelecis whose Nevertheless is no doubt somewhat scorned by those of a more rigorous turn of mind.
There was a slow increase of intensity but not of tempo, assisted by canonic treatment, as a modest climax emerged. The trio has just laid down a recording of several of Greenbaum’s pieces, including this one.
Rather more challenging for players and audience was Samuel Holloway’s Stapes. Again, the programme note elucidates: ‘The Stapes (stirrup) is the smallest in the chain of three bones that transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the internal ear’. And it goes on to explain that ‘the players work both together and against each other, in individual and collective struggles for articulacy’.
Thus the sounds are inchoate pizzicati, rumbling tremolo in the piano, whispy harmonics and slithering glissandi that deal in microtones. There’s a ferocious, out-of-control triple forte that sounds like bees swarming; instruments get in each-other’s way, some kind of simulation of what might happen in the ear as chaotic sound gets sense imposed on its journey through the ear’s machinery.
But take away the programme, I wondered, and how does the music rate? A great deal of today’s music seeks out esoteric concepts, images: non-musical things that might have sounds grafted on to them, but do they please, delight, satisfy through sounds that human beings of today? Even with the varied backgrounds that inform musical experiences of an era when more music of all sorts can be heard every hour of every day that before in history.
While admiring its imaginative sounds and the structures, often with some difficulty, I risk writing what I deplore in others – that further hearings might bring rewards, as I implied in my review of Holloway’s quartet played in Chamber Music New Zealand’s Einstein’s Universe concert in July.
The source of Psathas’s year-old Corybas lies closer to the sort of story or image that the average, reasonably experienced and broadminded musical listener can grasp. The fact that the rhythm was eleven beats to the bar was really of esoteric interest, as fitful attempts to count tended, at least for me, to hear a series of shorter, either three or four beats each. The more interesting and expressive aspect was the varied rhythms, hinting incongruously at tango (it’s based on Greek myth).
Psathas is fortunate in being able to draw on a mythology that was fairly familiar to the moderately well-educated till around the 1960s when the exposure of children to the classical languages, to English and other literatures, began to be banished from school curricula. So that references such as Psathas makes to Jason (Ioson) and Cybele demand recourse to Wikipedia just as most other historical references now do.
However, the music stands on its own feet without any background. It’s arresting and infectious, there are melodies that invite themselves into the musical compendium of the mind. The way the three instruments share the ideas is interesting and allow of being followed, and in often novel ways, a degree of excitement builds up: strings take a turn at handing a syncopated melody while the piano persists with repeated chords that don’t change or accelerate but rise to a pitch and then drops satisfyingly to end with a scrap of an earlier phrase.
Arensky’s well-known Piano Trio was one of the popular pieces played by the short-lived but gifted Turnovsky Trio in the 1990s. It remains one of the few substantial works by Arensky that is much played. It was popular with the Turnovsky Trio for the same reason, I guess, that the NZ Trio likes to programme it. Melodic, well-made, it finds a way to communicate emotion, here in the form of an elegy in memory of a cellist friend, Karl Davidov (whom Tchaikovsky called the ‘tsar of cellists’. His Stradivarius cello was later owned by Jacqueline du Pré and now by Yo Yo Ma).
The trio played it with unusual power, the cello vibrant with feeling, the violin driving hard, and the piano sustaining a legato and coherent foundation as well as making pungent exclamations. Though this is an example of the arch-romantic in music, an abstract intellectualism was never far away; and this was the sort of performance that lifts a work not of the masterpiece class to a level that demands attention as a serious postulant at the highest of Dante’s circles.