Chamber Music New Zealand
Goldner String Quartet with Piers Lane (piano)
Dene Olding, Dimity Hall violins
Irina Morozova, viola
Julian Smiles, cello
Schubert String Quartet D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’
Gareth Farr Te Tai-O-Rehua (Joint commission from CMNZ and Goldner Quartet)
Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
30th September 2013
This was an outstanding concert by an exceptional Australian ensemble playing a wonderful programme. Earthquake strengthening work has obliged Chamber Music NZ to move concerts from the Town Hall to the Fowler Centre and there were some doubts about the new venue’s suitability, given its acoustics and size. To offset its lack of intimacy for chamber music, a small pre-stage podium had been set up for the first two works, which brought the string quartet slightly closer to the audience. Despite this, the extreme pianissimi that embellished parts of the Schubert were not adequately projected, although the device worked quite well for the huge dynamics of Gareth Farr’s work.
The opening Allegro of the Schubert was full of spirited dramatic sweeps and contrasting tenderness, but the repeated background viola figures that underpin its rhythmic dynamism needed to be clearer and louder for optimum effect. The Andante con moto variations were beautifully rendered as each instrument explored the Death and the Maiden theme, supported by extraordinarily delicate tracery from the other players. The Scherzo followed with great vigour and a convincing contrast for the Trio, then we were catapulted into the Presto finale. The tempo was bordering on the hectic such that, despite the dry acoustic of the Fowler Centre, the scampering passagework of the inner voices sometimes lost its clarity. The contrast of sweeping melodies against those scurrying rhythms is what gives this movement its incredible momentum, but those key inner lines were often blurred by the frenetic tempo. That said, it was a thrilling reading that showcased the quartet’s impressive technical prowess and control, especially in the unison statement of the opening theme and the closing unison scales.
Gareth Farr’s Te Tai-O-Rehua is being premiered on this concert tour, and it proved to be an exciting addition to the string quartet repertoire. Despite being a relatively short work, it commands full stature in the tradition of New Zealand programmatic works from composers like Lilburn and Pruden. Gareth Farr writes:
”Te Tai-O-Rehua” translates from Maori language as ‘The Tasman Sea’ – the turbulent body of water that separates New Zealand from Australia. The piece was commissioned by the Goldner Quartet and Chamber Music New Zealand – and as such is a testament to the sibling relationship our two countries have. One of the inevitable things about the process of creating a piece of music is that whatever inspiration you begin with, the piece will ultimately take over and tell you what it is. I intended to write a happy and joyous piece because that’s the way I feel about my relationship with Australia as a New Zealander …… but the music came out dark, mysterious, and edgy…….In Te Tai-O-Rehua I have used an unusual scale built out of minor thirds and minor seconds which contributes to the dark mood of the piece….”.
This mechanism imbued the music with an intriguing tonality that sat in a hinterland of its own – well out of diatonic territory, but equally well clear of the arid deserts of C20th atonalism. It challenged the ear with complete conviction, while remaining strangely indefinable. And it created a gripping atmosphere for the brooding opening, evoking so dramatically giant kelp seething on wicked rocks, the ominous agitation of the waters before the southerly blast, and the turbulence of violent storms. The Goldner Quartet did full justice to the passion and prowess of the composition, and conveyed the clear impression that they were privileged to play it. The audience obviously felt privileged to hear it too, as Gareth Farr was greeted with huge enthusiasm at the conclusion. Hopefully there will be many future opportunities to hear this challenging and exciting work, and not too long a wait until it appears on CD.
Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor is a giant work which sits with the very greatest of this classical genre. The sound was projected from the main stage very satisfactorily, despite the absence of any reflective panels apart from the grand piano lid. The first movement has a Moderato introduction which the group played with beautifully evocative delicacy before sweeping into the rich luscious idioms of the Allegro with its sly hints of dancehall music. The piano has a very dramatic role which Piers Lane threw himself into in a marvelous collaboration with the strings: with single minded vision and faultless execution the ensemble grasped the thrilling drama of the writing and its incredible shifts of mood and dynamics. The central Adagio opens with a glorious cello melody, where Julian Smiles’ intense warmth of tone and wonderful phrasing were quite breathtaking. The full ensemble went on to develop the sweeping melodic canvas with a passion that gave full voice to Elgar’s rich romanticism, before they folded the closing melodies into a deep repose.
The Allegro finale has great drama and intensity – it is compelled along by extended passages of syncopation set against glorious sweeping melodies which are introduced and developed, interspersed with episodes of enormous energy and driving rhythms. The ensemble grasped every opportunity to its full musical and dramatic effect, and at no time did one feel this was a quartet-plus-piano group. The individual voices expressed Elgar’s intricate and masterful ensemble writing as if with a single heart and mind, and together they carried the work to a triumphant conclusion. There was an extended ovation from the audience who were rewarded with an encore, the Scherzo from Dvorak’s equally famous Piano Quintet in A. There the sparkling opening and closing sections were contrasted with a central trio section of magical lightness and delicacy. This closed an outstanding concert from an exceptional ensemble.