“Nature, Life and Love” for our time, from the NZTrio

City Gallery Wellington presents:
NZTrio Art3

Justine Cormack (violin)
Ashley Brown (‘cello)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Salvatore Sciarrino – Piano Trio No.2
John Zorn – Amour Fou
Leonie Holmes – ….when expectation ends (premiere)
Arnold Schoenberg (arr. Steuermann) – Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

City Gallery, Wellington

29th October 2014

I did like the NZTrio’s characterizing of its most recent Wellington concert at the City Gallery as “an edgy international exploration” – though further linking the concert to the Gallery’s October exhibition of the work of William Kentridge, a multi-media presentation called “The Refusal of Time” was frustrating, as I hadn’t had the chance to see the latter – apparently a truly “immersive” amalgam of cinematic methodology – animation, live action and pixelated motion. After listening to the NZTrio’s playing in the concert I wished even more that I’d seen the exhibition as well!

With music from the USA, Europe and New Zealand packed into an eventful eighty minutes, the Trio certainly gave value for money. The musicians have played in this venue before, though against the wall behind this audience, last time round that I remember. On that occasion I remembered being partly enchanted, partly distracted by the floor-to-ceiling artwork on the said wall behind the Trio – but this time the art gave out a rather more circumspect aspect, both in itself and its presentation!

But what musicians these people are! Chamber groups vary enormously in terms of what and how they “give out” to their audiences – an obvious example to hand would be a comparison between the present group and the Borodin Quartet, who visited Wellington earlier in the month. While the latter group remained physically undemonstrative while transfixing us with its sounds, the players’ aspect and posture as a group magnificently “contained” as they regaled us with the most superbly-focused tones, the NZTrio musicians compelled as much as by their body language as their sound. There’s something to be said for marrying musical efforts to appropriately organic gestures – within reason, a kind of performance choreography – and the NZTrio thus engaged our attentions on a visceral as well as musical level.

For this reason I never tire of watching the group perform, in particular pianist Sarah Watkins, who throws herself into whatever she’s doing, metaphorical boots and all! A far more connective comparison than with the Borodins, in terms of performance style, would be with the Austrian ensemble, the Eggner Trio, a group that’s frequently visited New Zealand, and which has a similarly engaging concert platform manner.

So, onto the “edgy international exploration”! First up we encountered Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Piano Trio No.2, music by a composer who’s known for his music’s evocations of silence and transparency of texture, with occasional irruptions of loud sounds – contrasts which demonstrate that a state or condition can be defined as much by its antithesis as by itself.

The hushed, almost ghostly whoops and descents of the communing strings at the outset contained to my ears a number of impressions, amongst them acts of impulse defying darkness, in space, or in the near-impenetrable gloom of great forests or vast oceans – at one point I imagined nascent reminiscences of the Latin plainchant “Dies Irae”; while the violin’s ascents towards stratospheric harmonics again evoked a similar kind of scalic chanting (what else had I been listening to of late?)…..Every now and then the ghostly voices’ mix was “stirred and shaken” by piano interpolations, which led to galvanic descents from the strings, “silvering” the ambience, into which the piano again intruded, with ever-increasing dynamism and coruscation. But the strings kept their energies in check, conversing in glissando-like mode, rather like spent meteorites falling from the sky – it was afterwards that I read the programme annotations which mentioned “ancient whale song and crystal meteors” wondering whether or not the words were the composer’s own……

Whatever suggestions of “bumt-out energy” might have been gleaned from these ambiences were belied by the piano’s “this is it!” reaction to the Dali-like suspensions of energy in time – great shooting-star glissandi and scintillations poured our of the instrument, with the sustaining pedal throwing open the cosmos, rather like a Black Hole operating in reverse! As for the strings, each instrument was transported by frenzied ecstacies/agonies, the work’s concluding exchanges hearkening back to those opening silences by default, the sounds appearing to “blister” from within the very beings of those far-away beginnings, a realization the listener is usually able to savour rather more tellingly via the silence at the end of a recording, than in a concert, with its intrusive(!) applause – now there’s a performance conundrum! – but it’s one that frequently comes to mind, as, of course, we all have our lists of pieces of music which we think really shouldn’t be applauded when they finish……..

Interestingly, both Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins provided us with some “byplay” at the end of the Sciarrino piece, Ashley Brown explaining that he had to make some “unbeautiful” sounds, i.e., activate his bow to remove excess resin accumulated during the Sciarrino, in order to be able to then make further beautiful sounds. But because I was sitting in a “last-minute-arrival” seat I wasn’t ideally placed to ascertain whether Sarah Watkins was putting on or removing from over her hands protective glove-like covers, “to stop blood from going all over the piano keys” as she put it – certainly the intensity with which she addressed Sciarrino’s keyboard writing towards the end of the Trio suggested that something might well have suffered some attrition as a result!

The Trio reversed the printed program order of the next two pieces, putting John Zorn’s Amour Fou ahead of, rather than following, Leonie Holmes’ …when expectation ends. In retrospect I felt it was to spare our sensibilities rather than the composers’ – instead of having two shortish pieces together, followed by two relatively lengthy ones, the dimensions were alternated. Stylistically, too, Zorn’s discursive explorations of the abysses between impulsive attraction and reflective confusion in love was more appropriate as a counterweight to the abstract brilliances of Sciarrino, than as an equally weighty cheek-by-jowl partner to Schoenberg’s “dark night of two souls”.

Away from the piece’s name and the programme’s suggestion of a universal discourse on love’s nature, I would have given Zorn’s music a dream-like title upon first hearing and characterized the sounds accordingly – it seemed to me that the sounds were presenting realities formulated in spontaneously-occurring ways, viewed in many instances through different lenses of perception or chartered on grids which showed different interpretations, like maps of the same area in an atlas showing different characteristics. But of course the title pushed my receptive sensibilities in a certain direction, and, as the composer probably intended, allowed me some traction in “interpreting” the sounds.

What a beautifully poised, expressionist opening! – plaintive piano chords sounded beneath a shimmering dream-like violin line, whose figures were then acted upon in surreal ways, accelerating, caught in ostinati, haunted by eerie tremolandi – everything seemed dream-like, not of this world. The piano for a while seemed to maintain the line, as the string-characters came and went, piquantly, quixotically, mysteriously, like the sultans in Omar Khayyam’s “batter’d-caravansarai”. The music frequently used repeated notes, chords and figurations  in a hypnotic way, simultaneously creating moving and frozen imagery, indicative of the overall ambivalence of perception/reality. And there were startling contrasts, both of dynamics and of movement – like a world of first impressions and immediate, rather than considered responses, as if consciousness was utterly at the mercy of involuntary impulse. If, as the title suggested, the piece was about love, then the sounds were clearly giving tongue to philosopher and cynic H.L.Mencken’s maxim that it was all “a triumph of imagination over intelligence”.

As the music  continued its fascinating peregrinations the piece seemed to me to increasingly cohere – it felt as though the figurations were extending their impulses and trying to form partnerships, reach out tendrils and forge bonds between groups of material, however disparate. I thought it an endlessly fascinating web of sounds, in places clearly demarcated, while in others characterized by fierce, intense interactions, even if the repetitive nature of a lot of the material still suggested that impulse and spontaneity rather than sense and intellect were driving the responses. And, interestingly, almost right up to the end there was that ambivalence of those disparate forces, presenting alternative states of reality – the cross-rhythms between piano and cello pizzicati hardly displayed a sense of hearts beating together. And was the violin’s final flourish some kind of “cri de coeur”? – John Zorn wasn’t telling!

Earlier this year I had greatly enjoyed reviewing an Atoll CD of Leonie Holmes’ orchestral music for radio, and as a result was looking forward to her new work (a world premiere performance, in fact), called “…when expectation ends”. As with her orchestral writing, Leonie Holmes here demonstrated a feeling for the instruments’ characteristic ambient voices – firstly, a plaintive violin solo, which was answered by widely-spaced piano figurations followed by ‘ethereal ‘cello harmonics – some lovely “cluster-chords” for piano further enabled a “floating” kind of atmosphere – one could imagine the sequence as a state wrought by the mind, which then began to unravel in the face of sterner realities – the instrumental lines started to pursue their own individual ends, occasionally clashing and creating discordant combinations. With the piano as peacemaker, order was momentarily restored, and a second lovely episode sounded out for our pleasure – even if the music’s inherent impulsiveness couldn’t be subdued for long. A string unison led to vigorous and even volatile points of instrumental contact, swirling colourings and textures, in fact excitingly orchestral in effect – marvellous, stirring stuff!

Finally, a sober, dark-browed ‘cello solo was duly comforted by violin and piano, the strings singing of times past, and the piano allowing the stillness to “surge softly backwards” at the end – these were gentle but hard-won tranquilities, stripped of illusion and enjoyed for what they were. Something of the same process in a deeper, darker, rather more fraught form was found in Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which concluded the program. Written by the composer originally as a string sextet, the work has been more often performed by a string orchestra (the composer’s own arrangement), but there exists also a transcription for Piano Trio (which I had never heard) by the composer/pianist Eduard Steuermann, a pupil, and later a colleague of Schoenberg. Most enterprisingly, it was programmed by the NZTrio for this concert.

Two things above all others surprised and delight me regarding the transcription and its performance here – firstly, the effectiveness of the piano as a protagonist in the work, not only rendering the music of the four displaced strings with absolute surety, but using its own special resonance to bring additional interest to the scenarios. The instrument’s voice created a distinctive ambience in which the two main protagonists, the man and the woman of the original poem by Richard Dehmel, could clearly and unequivocally interact as ‘cello and violin respectively, their thoughts, feelings, words and actions given a unique focus instead of having to compete with additional string textures.

Secondly, though Brahms and Wagner have always been cited as Schoenberg’s major influences in the writing of this work, the transcription’s keyboard writing interestingly brought out the influence of Liszt on the work. Quite apart from Schoenberg’s tendency to put melodic phrases in repeated pairs and near-pairs (as Liszt does throughout most of his orchestral symphonic poems), the figurations assigned the piano bore the stamp of Liszt in a number of sequences. I thought I also detected some of Franck’s influence in Schoenberg’s chromatic leanings when delineating the woman’s confessing to begetting a child with a stranger (and never before have I heard the “theme of reconciliation” sounding so much like that beatific second theme in the opening movement of  Franck’s Symphony!). As well, there are reminiscences of Chopin and his B Minor Piano Sonata’s slow movement, shortly afterwards, during the quietly ecstatic exchanges of accord between the couple.

For these reasons alone I simply loved this version of Verklärte Nacht that we were given – all of it presented with such an amalgam of varied feeling and intensity by the Trio. The work’s final paragraph, depicting the man and woman walking together through the transfigured dawning of their new life together, brought us textures suffused with love, joy and hope, those heartfelt strings floating upon ecstatic piano figurations, before all became as windblown wisps of sound at the end. We were left replete, aglow with warmth but also breath-bated at the fragility of the remaining silences…..



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