Delights from Emma Sayers and NZSO principal violin and horn, in ‘Piano Plus’

Piano Plus at St Andrew’s: Concert No 3

Mozart: Violin Sonata in G, K 379
Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40

Vesa-Mati Leppänen – violin; Samuel Jacobs – horn; Emma Sayers – piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 14 November, 5:30 pm

The third of these enterprising concerts which have been mounted to help in the church’s rebuilding programme: the project is in its third stage which involves new public facilities to make the church a more attractive place for all kinds of social and cultural activities: a green room, reception area, toilets, meeting space, disability access and other amenities.

This evening was the centre-piece of the series in some ways: it fell in the middle of the five concerts and it involved three players; and it was the longest concert so far, containing a Mozart violin sonata and Brahms’s horn trio.

Mozart’s violin sonata in G major has somehow escaped me till now. To refresh my memory, I listened to the only CD recording I had of it but it hardly came to life or overflowed with charm.

So I was delighted to discover how an affectionate and committed performance, and of course a live performance compared with a mere recording, could so transform it. Its shape is a little unusual: an introductory Adagio leading to an Allegro in the minor key and then an extended Theme and Variations. The opening Adagio could in some ways have been a separate movement: it lasts about 5 minutes. The piano opens with four rolling, broken chords holding the floor for nearly a minute; before the violin had sounded a note I was quite enchanted, but the violin’s entry completed my delight to find what utterly charming and gracious piece it promised to be.

There was an urgency and a certain emphatic quality about the following Allegro, which moves to G minor, a sombre key for Mozart. In spite of the remark in the programme about Mozart moving away from the character of violin sonatas at the time, which was basically a piano sonata with violin accompaniment. That may have been so, but the piano still seemed to have the more interesting things to do, and Emma Sayers knew how to enrich her part, certainly every bit the equal of the violin in lending the music its allure.

The second, and last, movement is a Theme and Variations, basically orthodox yet original on account of their speaking from a lively imagination rather than a perfunctory set of predictable variations. Here again the piano tended to lead; in fact the first variation was for the piano alone. Later variations were delicate, decorated, the one instrument echoing the other; the fourth variation shifted again to G minor, very quietly, becoming imaginative and elaborate, and in the fifth the piano again led as the violin accompanied with pizzicato. And then the main theme returned, exposing both players again to more balanced musical contributions.

To provide an entrée to another era of music, Emma sought our indulgence by anticipating the expected demand for an encore at the end by playing it here, before Brahms’s horn trio. It was his Intermezzo in A, Op 118, No 2.

Brahms’s Horn Trio is rightly accorded an honoured place in the chamber music repertoire. It was chosen, as Emma explained, both because of its stature but also because Samuel Jacobs’s predecessor as the NZSO’s principal horn was Edward Allen who had loved and played the piece many times.

Its success as a composition lies in the balance and harmonic compatibility achieved between, in particular, the violin and horn, and in this performance it rested on the accord and beauty of tone that those two instruments achieved. The programme notes remarked on Brahms’s preference that it be played on a natural horn – without valves – though here Jacobs used a modern instrument.

Perhaps the most interesting sounds emerged in the Scherzo where after the emphatic staccato from the piano, which Emma Sayers produced with velvety tone rather than mere loudness, the vitality of the outer sections offer the horn its chance to return to its origins as hunting horn, though there’s still more lyrical music than brassy hunting calls. The Trio of the Scherzo follows a full close, and offers a striking contrast to the encompassing boisterousness, with charming melody that gave each player scope to explore rhapsodically.

The loveliest duetting by violin and horn is in the Adagio mesto, which we are invited to hear as sad. Here it was simply thoughtful or contemplative rather than an elegy for Brahms’s recently dead mother; the playing was expressive and lovingly spun out. It is possible to find the finale, Allegro con brio, a bit predictable with the horn running along with its sequences of rising fourths; piano and violin seem to be in control of the melodic ideas, but after a while my ear was being caught mainly by horn and piano. Nevertheless, for all the superb playing by Leppänen and Jacobs I found increasing pleasure in Sayers’s performance which was endlessly arresting and delightful.


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