Waikanae Music Society
Shostakovich: Two pieces for String Octet, Op.11
Enescu: String Octet in C, Op. 7
Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat, Op.20
The Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, Kristina Zelinska, Rebecca Struthers, Malavika Gopal violins; Andrew Thomson, Lyndsay Mountfort violas; Andrew Joyce, Sophie Williams cellos
Waikanae Memorial Hall
Sunday 13 April 2014, 2.30pm
An interesting programme performed by fine musicians is always an attraction – even on a gorgeously sunny, warm day in spring. That’s what I wrote as the introduction to a September 2012 review of this ensemble. This time, despite 24deg. last Sunday in Waikanae, it was chilly and damp. On that 2012 occasion, they played Enescu; this time it was a much more extended work by that composer; Donald Armstrong said this was a New Zealand premiere, as far as he had been able to discover. It is a rare event to hear octets; even a luxury.
Assembling this number of players is quite problematic, and all praise to Donald Armstrong for giving us three such works. The concert was not only well attended, with probably over 400 patrons, it was also a very attentive audience.
I had just been told before sitting down, about the possibility of a siren going off, summoning the Volunteer Fire Brigade (I had never heard it at the numerous concerts I have been to at the venue). As Donald Armstrong began to speak into the microphone, that is exactly what happened! The locals knew, but he didn’t, that a second sounding would follow; his second attempt had to be aborted.
However, if it had to go off, it was perfectly timed, before a note had been played.
Among Armstrong’s prefatory remarks was one about the lightness of texture of these octets, there being no parts for double bass. The ensemble was seated as two quartets, i.e. violas were seated separately, between cellists and violinists; the violinists changed positions for each item.
The remarkable thing about this concert was that each composition was written before the respective composers had reached their twentieth birthdays; Mendelssohn was only 16 when he wrote his wonderful Octet. As the heading to the programme notes had it “The works in today’s concert were all written by great composers when they were very young. They are vibrant, energetic works that demonstrate the emerging genius of their creators.”
The first Shostakovich piece was a Prelude, written in memory of a friend, a young poet. It began crisply, yet the playing was sonorous. There was a chorale-like opening, but immediately the music became dissonant, (it was written in 1924, before Stalin and his strictures on all forms of artistic endeavour) then sad, even gloomy. Solo passages for violist Andrew Thomson were followed by a pizzicato dirge, and then by an animated section. Poignant slow suspensions intensified the mood.
The Scherzo, in contrast, was not only fast, but also furious at the beginning, and then became soulful, especially in a cello melody. There were spiky, strong rhythms, and the ending was briskly energetic. The work certainly demonstrated the composer’s early talent and skill, and indeed those of the players as well.
George Enescu was a Romanian composer, but lived most of his life in Paris, where he was a virtuoso violinist and teacher (Yehudi Menuhin was a pupil) and composer. His quite lengthy and grand quartet in four movements was taxing for the players.
At the beginning of the first movement, parts were quite often in unison between two or more instruments. Gorgeous melodies and striking harmonies fell easily on the ear, as did the quiet pizzicato while a viola solo was played. Then came the second movement, with some strident, declamatory passages. The third movement was played with mutes, giving a sombre, yet smooth and peaceful effect to the chords. Violin melodies were played over slow, interrupted chords on the lower instruments. Intensity and utter accuracy typified the playing of this movement . There was much pizzicato, beautifully done, and many unexpected elements. It was a commanding performance that held the audience’s attention.
The final movement, ‘Mouvement de valse bien rythmée’ ranged over tonalities and octaves. Though marked ‘waltz’ it would not have been easy to dance to! A strong cello and viola melody stood out. Only in this movement did I begin to think that Enescu was somewhat long-winded – and then it ended.
The extraordinary Mendelssohn work was written one hundred years before the Shostakovich Prelude. In my book, the former is one of the top ten, if not the top six, works of chamber music. The sublime musical ideas start from the dramatic opening, a rising phrase that builds in dynamics as it rises in pitches. A mood of youthful exuberance pervades the writing, for the most part pervading the Amici playing too. Nevertheless, quiet passages were rendered beautifully. Breadth, elegance and soaring melodies are abundant in this glorious music.
The second movement opens with the violas, then a cello is added, succeeded by an ethereal melody. The second theme is equally lovely. Armstrong’s phrasing and timbre were a delight in his extended solo. Rich and ever-changing sonorities characterised the movement. The Scherzo (allegro leggierissimo) was indeed light and fantastic, presaging the composer’s later ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ music.
This was followed by the dynamism of the fugal final movement. Such complexity from a 16-year-old! The reiteration of Handel’s music to the words ‘And he shall reign for ever and ever’ in the Hallelujah chorus (Messiah) had been pointed out by Donald Armstrong. There it was, passing from instrument to instrument, the theme in the busy finale.
Sustained applause greeted the end of the work. I felt privileged to have heard such an outstanding performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, and to have heard for the first time the two preceding works. This was a demanding programme for the players, who deserved every plaudit they received. If I had one reservation, it was that sometimes the cellos were rather dominating. But there was little to detract from the marvellous achievement that this concert represented.