Two woodwinds, two strings, in varied concert from Nikau Trio plus

Nikau Trio (Karen Batten – flute, Madeline Sakovfsky – oboe, Margaret Guldborg – cello) plus Konstanze Artmann – violin

Telemann: Quartet for flute, oboe, violin and continuo
Honegger: Trios contrepoints
Hovhaness: Suite for English horn and bassoon (cello)
Martinů: Duo No 1 for violin and cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 November, 12:15 pm

There is a belief in chamber music circles that you stage groups involving wind instruments or singers at your peril. A strange notion that suggests that the same sort of closed mind operates within some groups of classical music lovers that they scorn in those fixated by pop music who won’t open their ears to classical music.

I was present when the Wellington Chamber Music Society started its Sunday afternoon series in 1983. One of their aims was to get performances of music for larger groups than the standard string quartet, as well as promising young groups and of music written for all kinds of instruments, but quite importantly for wind instruments; among the early concerts were Mozart’s three wonderful wind serenades which are still too rarely played. These concerts proved a brilliant initiative and were, and continue to be, highly successful.

Well, there was quite a large audience at St Andrew’s to hear this delightful group which I missed hearing at the Futuna Chapel a couple of weeks ago.

These instruments sound warm and brilliant in this resonant acoustic. I last heard them around this time last year when they played a more traditional programme of Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Beethoven. This time greater adventurousness paid off with music mainly of the 20th century. However, they opened with a quartet by Telemann evidently composed for these very instruments; though not much of Telemann can be charged with undue profundity, his renaissance has been accomplished through an awakening to the rewards that come from happy, polished and avowedly entertaining music that has been composed with serious intent.

The quartet delighted by its fertile and fluent melodic facility, and the players took every opportunity to exploit all the piquancy and the scope given to the characteristics of each instrument, especially in often delicious harmonic duetting. Though allegro and vivace markings seem to offer Telemann his best opportunities, the moderato middle part of the second movement had extended passages for the oboe’s lower register as well as charming duet with the flute.

Honegger has always seemed to me the odd-one-out among the famous ‘Six’ of the 1920s: Swiss, while the rest were French, not given nearly so much to musical wit or unorthodoxy or, for example, Milhaud’s prodigious output and exoticism.

But he shared the desire to avoid the complexity of impressionism and the expressionism that embraced atonality. These three ‘contrapuntal’ pieces of 1922 hardly suggested baroque counterpoint, but their straightforward style and clarity made attractive listening. The three pieces called in turn for two, three and finally all four players, involving changes to cor anglais in the second and in the third, both cor anglais and piccolo.  The players readily found the most engaging means to convey this honest and unpretentious music, typified in a certain gruffness produced by the cello that seemed perfectly in tune with the elusive charm of this piece.

Alan Hovhaness was one many composers who continued through the mid and late 20th century to compose using traditional means and were long neglected by the avant-garde establishment through those years; his name is even absent from some musical dictionaries (though not from Wikipedia).  His background – Scottish and Armenian – often led to music that has more than a hint of the Balkans, or should that read the Caucasus? For there was an engaging melancholy often associated with that region in this three movement suite for cor anglais (or ‘English horn’ in the title) and bassoon, here played by the cello.

Though the cellist played the notes with considerable feeling, making clear her sensitivity to the style and spirit of Hovhaness’s piece, knowing that it was conceived for bassoon did make me aware that the
composer had intended a different sound which might have been even more beguiling. The last movement, in a mazurka-like triple rhythm in particular seemed to invite a second reed instrument.

Finally, the trio made a concession to the presence of two stringed instruments, entirely neglecting the pair of woodwinds that had tended to lead the way in the other three pieces. I am very fond of Martinů, but this didn’t much remind me of the pieces I know, mainly the symphonies, the opera The Greek Passion, and a variety of other chamber works, one of the most recent being the delightful Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. This first of two duos for violin and cello was written in 1927 when he was in Paris and had come under the influence of Stravinsky and the expressionist movement. This piece is melodically robust, even muscular, not just pretty, revealing touches of both Stravinsky and Bartok, though not so much, I felt, of contemporary French composers; it struck me as a rather substantial
work, not to be dismissed on account of its unassuming title, ‘Duo’. The two instruments have equal roles, and indulge in a great deal of taxing and musically elaborate counterpoint, sharing of motifs tossed back and forth which the two players brought off with a admirable commitment and persuasiveness.

I suspect that a slightly unfamiliar group such as this would have found it much more difficult before the days of Google and Wikipedia to put together a programme such as they managed here. And in employing such resources, they also bring to life for listeners in remote parts of the world music that
we’d otherwise be unaware of, and the poorer for that.


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