Piano trios in sparkling performances by Waikato-based ensemble

New Zealand Chamber Soloists (Katherine Austin – piano, Amalia Hall – violin, James Tennant – cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Piano Trio in D minor, H 327 (Martinů)
Corybas and Aegean (Psathas)
Piano Trio in F minor, Op 65 (Dvořák) 

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 27 April, 3 pm

I was surprised to discover how long it seems to be since I heard either Katherine Austin or James Tennant in concert. In fact, a search of Middle C back to October 2008 throws up neither name. However, we’ve reviewed three or four recitals involving Amalia Hall.

Most of my experience of Austin and Tennant in earlier years has been in the chamber music series in Wellington or Lower Hutt and at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, though I don’t think they have performed there in the last two or three festivals, at least.

So this recital was a pleasure; additionally spiced by Katherine Austin’s ebullient remarks about the music.

I have come to enjoy Martinů’s music over the years and so I found myself feeling much more receptive to this piano trio than I think some of the audience was.

His music is idiosyncratic and I can envisage performances that fail to grasp his spirit. Here however, the trio did not try to make too much of the opening passages: there was a discreet reticence in their approach, though the insistent rhythm, in the shape of motifs of two quavers and a crotchet and the opposite, and the energy that is always present was there, but waiting in the wings, as it were.

Though the melodic ideas are not as strong as in some of Martinů’s music, by the end of the first movement – less than five minutes, it had planted itself very satisfactorily in my head. The second movement starts secretively, on violin and piano though the cello later to enjoy some lovely duetting with the violin. The players didn’t allow the drifting mood of the Adagio to lose its way, though it did seem to take its time to find the exit. The finale found the more characteristic Martinů voice, with its typical ostinato-like motifs and motoric rhythms.

But I await a performance of Martinů’s Nonet from an enterprising ensemble; not to mention one of our orchestras programming one of his six symphonies.

A colleague has observed that the acoustic in St Andrew’s has become a little harder for chamber music since the refurbishment; I’m not sure, as each of the instruments spoke clearly and were always well balanced, even though the piano’s lid was on the long stick and the writing could have tempted the pianist to a more dominant role. (My colleague, Rosemary Collier, told me later that it was probably a rug under the piano that had tempered its sound).

The trio had commissioned Corybas from John Psathas, and he had been inspired to add a short additional piece called Aegean, as an envoi (in the sense of a concluding strophe to, usually, an Elizabethan poem; Psathas called it a postlude).

The pair of pieces had been premiered in Crete in 2011; Corybas had several interlinked references, but was based on a Macedonian dance in complex rhythm; Aegean was in part inspired by the view of the Aegean from his parents’ house high above the sea on the coast of below Mount Olympus.  But Katherine told us that they had decided to play in first, and that seemed very fitting. A complex pattern seemed to lie beneath it but that did not create a barrier for the listener. Its impact was of calm though not, for me, of a seascape. There were long-drawn lines for violin and cello over a busier piano part, and it proved a happy prelude for Corybas.

Strangely, there seemed to be a real affinity between it and the Martinů trio.

The piano opened Corybas with a deliberate exposition of the rhythm, as a serialist might do with a tone-row. But this was no serial or any other kind of avant-garde composition. Though the rhythm was complex, there were quite long passages with a strong and insistent beat; the piece sounded very danceable, at least for someone born in Greece.  I enjoyed the way the energy slowly dissipated as the end approached, though without any loss of spirit. Teasingly, it just got slower and more engaging. The trio has played it a number of times, and their familiarity and affinity added hugely to its acceptance and enjoyment.

Finally, Dvořák’s piano trio: No 3, but the first to make a real mark. Though the programme note linked its character with the recent death of the composer’s mother, there was little, for my ears, that suggested sadness, let alone grief. In a minor key, to be sure, but written with such maturity and confidence (after all he’d written his sixth symphony by this time, 1883; he was 42) that it is the melodic richness, life-affirming vigour and its compositional skill that animates it and gives it stature.

The first movement is the most important, almost a quarter hour and a tour de force given to sudden dynamic changes, a variety of tone and metre and dealing fluently with its fertile thematic material. These players took every chance to exploit all these opportunities, producing a mood of profound contentment. I noted earlier the happy balance maintained between the three instruments; here, perhaps more than before, I was conscious of more than just a feeling of restraint with the cello part, but a view of it as secondary; it may have been where I was sitting, on the left side. Nevertheless, when I turned my attention to the cello, Tennant’s playing was always deeply expressive. And that quality became particularly evident in the slow movement which opens, elegiacally indeed, with a lovely cello melody.

But before that, the scherzo-like second movement, Allegretto grazioso, arrested the ear through the teasing rhythm that seemed to suggest various time signatures, broken by a trio section of quite different and more pensive character.

Both the third and fourth movements, each of round ten minutes, seem to maintain the level of melodic inspiration, as the cello’s melody at the beginning of the Poco adagio is followed by a mirroring melody on the violin that was comparably engaging. And the last movement returned to the serious energy of the first movement where the Katherine Austin’s extrovert piano often led the way in dramatizing the abrupt tempo changes, the accelerandos, the little emphatic outbursts that held the attention even when one, secretly, felt that the composer was prolonging the end somewhat unduly.

So this was a splendid concert, giving a fine exposure to one of Dvořák’s chamber music masterpieces as well as rewarding and successful works of the past half century.


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