Brilliant and rousing finale to Wellington Chamber Music’s 2013 concerts

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts:
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) / Andrew Joyce (‘cello) / Diedre Irons (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in E-flat Op.70 No.2
DEBUSSY – Violin Sonata / ‘Cello Sonata
SCHUBERT – Piano Trio in E-flat  D.929

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

 Sunday 6th October, 2013

I’m sure that one of the most effective advertisements for a symphony orchestra is when its principal players appear in other spheres as soloists or chamber musicians and nobly aquit themselves. A week before at St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace concertgoers had the good fortune to experience the wonderful playing of Hiroshi Ikematsu, section leader of the NZSO double basses, performing a Bottesini concerto . Now, here in the same venue were not one but two more principals from the orchestra joining forces with one of the country’s finest pianists to present a programme featuring both instrumental sonatas and piano trios.

Even though the term “luxury casting” normally refers to the phenomenon of gifted artists taking supporting rather than leading roles in performances, it was the phrase that came to my mind most readily when considering who was playing in this concert – none other than Vesa-Matti Leppänen, the NZSO Concertmaster, and Andrew Joyce, the orchestra’s principal ‘cello, along with the highly-regarded Diedre Irons at the piano.

There’s a feeling that an “ad hoc” group of musicians joining forces to play chamber music might not have the innate teamwork and long-established understanding of each other’s playing needed to fully explore whatever repertoire is presented. Countering this is the idea that one-off partnerships such as these create “sparks” by dint of the creative spontaneity of it all, and bring a newly-minted sense of discovery to the music and its interpretation.

It seemed to my ears that this combination had the best of both worlds – the give-and-take between the players in both the Beethoven and Schubert piano trios was such which one might expect from a well-established combination. On the other hand there was nothing of the routine, nothing glib or mechanical about the playing – instead, a sense of wonderful spontaneity, everything sounded by the musicians as if being heard and sounded out for the very first time.

As one might have expected, St Andrew’s Church was well-filled, with no seats to speak of near the front (my preferred place for reviewing). Boldly and resolutely I decided to go up to the choir-loft for a change, as I’d previously heard fellow-reviewer Lindis Taylor speak favourably of the acoustics from that vantage-point. His judgement was proved correct, as, to my surprise, the sounds of the instruments had plenty of  clarity, amplitude and tonal warmth.  At first I found myself missing something of the visceral contact with the music-making one gets from sitting  somewhere in the first few rows –  but in its place was a kind of all-encompassing sense of  the music, more of an overview, if you like, of the proceedings.

The ear being the infinitely adaptable mechanism that it is, I was soon as involved with the sounds as I’d ever been at a concert – first to be performed was Beethoven’s second  and lesser-known of the two Op.70 Piano Trios (the more famous one being the “Ghost”). This music was a rather more amiable affair than its darker, more intense companion, though its E-flat key gave the music an appropriately romantic ambience throughout.

We got a treasurable moment right at the start –  ‘cello, violin and then piano serenely brought the music into being, creating  a kind of “the gods at rest” scenario at the outset, then rousing themeslves with what seemed like playful Olympian energy through the movement’s  amalgam of  warmth, spaciousness and vigour. I thought the three players seemed like a kind of musical “Trinity” each distinctively individual, but essentially at one with the musical flow – in what seemed like no time at all we were at the movement’s “reprise”, the instruments entering in reverse order to the opening,  glowing with the joy of their interchanges and poised for a final flourish and calm closure to the movement.

The Allegretto’s teasing dance at the opening threw into exciting relief the group’s playing of the stormier minor-key episodes –  in a “Russian” or “Hungarian” mode. At the movement’s somewhat questioning end (a tentative restatement of the opening dance measures) the players took up the composer’s enjoiner to grab those same measures by the scruff of the neck and give them a good shake! I loved the more flowing movement (another Allegretto) that followed – a Schubertian theme (yes, it’s the wrong way round to put such things, I realise) with an oscillating accompaniment and a linking refrain with haunting “flattened” harmonies – here the playing brought out the gentle romance of the music and its reflective, “letting go” of the moment at the end.

After this the finale restored something of the first movement’s sense of energetic fun to the work, the players relishing  both the music’s invigorating forward thrust and the startling sideways modulations at various points, all encompassed within a trajectory of  wonderful natural ebullience, and here brought by the trio to a pitch of effervescent excitement, to which we all responded instantly and whole-heartedly.

Two Debussy sonatas gave the concert variety in both voice and manner,  firstly for violin and then for the ‘cello, both with piano. Debussy had intended to write six of these instrumental sonatas, but sickness and premature death overtook the composer after only three were finished – the Violin Sonata was in fact his last completed work.

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Diedre Irons were the players – the work began with evocative piano chords, joined by the violin and standing time on its head for a few moments (as certain passages in the composer’s music are wont to do)  before leaning forwards and into the allegro vivo. There were passionate utterances alternated with more veiled sequences, and some magical changes of harmony –  both musicians handled the composer’s many variations of rhythm and dynamic emphasis with completely natural voices. Debussy’s violin played a haunting, chromatic phrase at one point, echoed by the piano as well, and sounding like something heard at an Arabian bazaar –  later, a fuller-throated  variant of this phrase abruptly ended the movement.

Violinist and pianist brought to life the spontaneous, improvisatory irruptions of the second movement’s opening, and then enjoyed the piquant and impish “Minstrels’-like” mood of the succeding sequences – the piano danced while the violin mused, then both rhapsodised and harmonised – such lovely, free-fall playing! The finale’s few “lost in the wilderness” opening bars were dispersed as mists by the violin’s energetic flourishes, though the music’s “anything goes” spirit then  plunged our sensibilities into a sea of languidity –  such suffused richness of tones, here! And then, what elfin dexterities both violinist and pianist summoned up throughout the final pages as the sounds were roused from from their torpor and flung to the four winds as liberated energies – an amazing utterance from a terminally sick composer!

Now it was ‘cellist Andrew Joyce’s turn with the ‘Cello Sonata– in response to Diedre Irons’ opening declamations at the sonata’s beginning, the ‘cello replied in kind at first, then more wistfully – in fact, from both players there came some beautifully-voiced withdrawn sounds.  By contrast, darker, more agitated passages revealed another side to the music, the players switching to and from irruptions of mischief to more melancholy utterances. The pizzicati-dominated opening to the second movement gave a brittle, pointilistic quality to the music, haunted in places by eerie harmonics. The finale maintained the same enigmatic face until bursting into  energetic life with a near manic-dance theme, whose pentatonic character immediately brings to mind Fritz Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinoise”! Debussy wanted to call the sonata at one stage “Pierrot angry at the Moon” – and certainly the playing of Andrew Joyce and Diedre Irons had that detailed, pictorial storytelling quality which gave the music a  strong theatrical dimension, parallel to its essentially abstract quality – how one hears the work depends upon what the listener is actually LISTENING for…..

Where Debussy’s music was concentrated, volatile and elusive, that of Schubert’s which concluded the concert was expansive, consistent in mood and warm-hearted. This was the second of his two full-scale piano trios, the one which listeners of my generation would refer to by way of differentiation as the “Barry Lyndon” trio, the Andante of the work having been used extensively in the 1970s Stanley Kubrick film of the same name – and extremely effectively, as I remember.

Having dwelt at length on the concert’s other items, I’m not going to unduly anatomise this well-known work or its performance, except to say that the musicians played each and every note as though they loved them all dearly – each turn of phrase, every gradation of dynamics, and each and every tone and colour expressed both individually and together all had the kind of meaningful purpose given by gifted speakers or actors to great poetry or to Shakespearean prose.

And yet nothing was over-laden or emphasised out of context or proportion – both of the middle movements were, for example, rather more dry-eyed at their outset than I wanted them to sound, but in each case convinced through a gradual accumulation of intensities as the music unfolded – the concluding major-to-minor statement of the “Barry Lyndon” theme (excuse my “period” association!) had as much tragic weight and dark portent as that of any performance I’d previously heard, for example.

As for the finale, the music represents Schubert in an ebullient mood, in most places, with episodes of extreme abandonment given to the hapless pianist in particular, who has whirls of notes to contend with in places towards the end, as do the rushing strings at times as well. The return of the aforementioned slow movement theme in the finale allowed the composer to change the expressive outcomes of the music by adroitly reversing previous arrangements and giving the melody a minor-to-major course – a great moment, and a display of optimism and faith in existence wholly characteristic of its composer.

I was going to say it helped “bring the house down” at the work’s tumultuous end, but in fact the house did the reverse, and rose to give the musicians a standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion.  Time was when we would have had to look to visiting artists to give us live performances of such calibre – but here were three local musicians delivering the goods for our delight in no uncertain terms. The response would have gladdened the heart of David Carew, chairperson of Wellington Chamber Music, who had earlier welcomed us to the concert and announced his decision to step down as chair at the end of this year – a most successful concert with which to bow out! This was indeed, for all concerned, a truly memorable occasion.



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