An evening’s enjoyment of wonderful things in Lower Hutt

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin)
Julia Joyce (viola)
Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Diedre Irons (piano)

HAYDN – String Trio in G Major Op.53 No.1
FRANCK – Sonata for Violin and Piano (1886)
BRAHMS – Piano Quartet in C Minor Op.60

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday 25th May, 2015

The programme devised for this concert certainly made the most of the music and the performers, as well as pleasing the audience no end – having works for variously two, three and four musicians provided plenty of variety, while the performances established and maintained levels of skill, intensity, beauty and enjoyment that would have graced a recital platform anywhere in the world.

On the face of things, hardest-working of the quartet of musicians was violinist Vesa-Matti Leppänen, usually concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, but here as fully involved in duo, trio and quartet partnerships, his playing a common and unifying thread throughout the evening’s music.

And what colleagues he had! – two of his orchestral colleagues, both (like Vesa-Matti) leaders of their particular sections in the NZSO, violist Julia Joyce and ‘cellist Andrew Joyce (partners in real life, of course), and the incomparable Diedre Irons at the piano – all, incidentally, local musicians!

The Haydn Trio began with a variation movement, lovely, lilting phrases, the dance firmly, but also winningly characterized – the composer again and again showed his inventiveness in creating delightful discourses from such deceptively simple material, with each instrument getting its chance to cheekily counterpoint the basic, unprepossessing theme. Then in the second and final movement, the pace quickened to a scamper, punctuated by pauses and dynamic contrasts – now tender and touching, now brilliant and decorative, the trio’s teamwork exemplary.

A good thing I’ve never grown tired of hearing Cesar Franck’s deservedly well-loved Violin Sonata – because, despite its technical difficulties and emotional “stretches” it regularly comes up in recital programs. Here, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the performance was the interaction of what might have seemed like two temperamentally different musicians, charged by cosmic circumstance with bringing the work to life.

While admiring the elegance and skill of Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin playing on the occasions I’ve heard him demonstrate his art, I’ve always though of him as a cool, somewhat detached and “contained” player – different sorts of qualities one would expect of an ideal interpreter of this work. And now, here he was, about to perform it with a colleague whom I’ve long regarded as one of music’s greatest and warmest communicators, pianist Diedre Irons.

As it turned out, each player was a near-perfect “foil” for the other in this music – and in any case the composer’s history as a “young virtuoso lion” of the keyboard meant that the writing’s focus often swung towards the pianist – no mere “violin with accompaniment” with this work! This fusion of styles I thought enriched the performance, with whole episodes seemingly given over to each player’s strengths and beautifully weighted by both in overall terms.

What did delight me the most, however, was hearing the violinist respond to his partner’s red-blooded manner at appropriate places – so full measure was given to the exhilaration of the second movement’s concluding measures, as well as the “deeply-dug” recitatives and the inwardness of the introspections in the slow movement. And I loved Vesa-Matti’s “full-bow” treatment of the return of that movement’s “big tune” in the finale – which moment, of course, Diedre Irons’ playing magnificently orchestrated, before scampering back down the hills towards the more circumspect undulations of the opening, and the ritual of its final canonic dance.

All hands came upon deck for the evening’s final work, Brahms’ epic C Minor Piano Quartet. Though this was the third such work written by the composer, and with a later opus number than its companions, the three quartets were sketched out at the same time – the C Minor work reflects Brahms’ involvement with the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, from the time that Robert had been committed to the asylum.

Brahms took twenty years to work through his various and contradictory feelings regarding what the music was trying to express. Originally set in C#Minor, the work’s key was changed to C Minor, Brahms developing his feelings from those of a hopeless lover (C#Minor was E.T.A.Hoffman’s famous character Kreisler, one whose influence on Schumann was evident in his piano suite “Kreisleriana”), to heroism amid struggle (exemplified by Beethoven’s frequent use of C Minor). These two feelings make themselves known, cheek-to-jowl, right at the pieces’ beginning, with the piano’s octaves (forceful expression) and the string’s “dying fall” motif perhaps representing characters in the drama to follow.

Drama it certainly was here, in huge shovelfuls, with powerful outbursts of concerted energy having their say, before giving way to a beautifully-extended and lyrical second group, weaving the opening descending figure into the argument in both minor and major modes, as well as contrasting the tragic with the heroic. The players, together and separately, conjured up massive trenchant utterances in contrast to the tenderness they also found in more lyrical moments, a beautiful exchange between viola and violin causing the piano to sing with the utmost pleasure in response.

The piano leapt first into the scherzo’s fray before the others took the plunge – though the music seemed uncertain whether to exult or snarl in places, the group roller-coastered all of us up and over the movement’s formidable hill-crests in exhilarating style. And no sooner had we regained our breath than the loveliest ‘cello-playing one could imagine was upon our ears courtesy of Andrew Joyce, introducing the slow movement with sounds that fell as gratefully as sunbeams on previously storm-tossed flowers of the fields.

Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin then added to our pleasure with its own voice  extending the melody in duet with the ‘cello. Not to be left out, the viola deftly and mellifluously duetted with each of its string-partners, Julia Joyce’s tones as transparent as a violin’s in places, and as mellow and mysterious as a cello’s in others. And Diedre Irons surely and sweetly marked the  piano’s place in the movement’s “continuous melody” by a tenderly-phrased reprise of the melody as sensitive and atmospheric as any.

Urgency and anxiety drove the ensemble at the finale’s beginning, the piano’s “perpetuo mobile” breaking off only momentarily for some hymn-like chords from the strings which were picked up and swept away once again in the maelstrom of it all. The players caught the “throes” of the music at its heart, by turns skittish and impulsive, with the sinuous lines frequently losing their momentum and having to regroup their energies – what intensities were carried through by the drive of the piano figurations and the sonorous string utterances!

One felt at the end a kind of “haunted relief” in the music, besides some Brahmsian exultation – ironically, the kind of ambivalence that Schumann would have recognized, as befitted his own struggles with life and art. A great and moving performance, then, of stirring, deeply-etched music, part of a rich and variegated evening’s enjoyment of wonderful things.










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