Auckland Ensemble (Caroline Almonte, piano; Leo Phillips, violin; Serenity Thurlow, viola; Edith Salzmann, cello)
(Waikanae Music Society)
Mozart: Piano quartet no.1 in G minor K.178 (allegro, andante, rondo allegro)
Brahms: Piano quartet no.3 in C minor, Op 60 (allegro non troppo, scherzo: allegro, andante, allegro comodo)
Schumann: Piano quartet in E flat major, Op.47 (sostenuto assai – allegro ma non troppo, scherzo: molto vivace – trio I – trio II, andante cantabile, vivace)
Waikanae Memorial Hall
Sunday 17 May 2015, 2.30pm
An interesting and attractive programme did not, nevertheless, attract as large an audience as has attended many of the Society’s concerts. Was it the welcome fine, sunny weather after so much rain recently that proved more enticing than sitting in a hall?
Edith Salzmann, formerly cello teacher at Canterbury University, is now teaching the instrument at the University of Auckland, where violist Serenity Thurlow is also teaching. Leo Phillips (UK) is a visiting tutor at the same university, and Caroline Almonte (Australia) is giving master-classes there.
The Mozart work is quite a well-known one, but despite the first movement being played slower than I have heard it before, it seemed to find the Ensemble less than cohesive as a group, especially in the tone department, in the first movement. The viola tone disappointed, and for my taste, there was excessive slurring of the melody line on the violin; I would expect a crisper articulation for Mozart, and fewer intonation wobbles. Pianist Caroline Almonte’s playing was delightful, and beautifully articulated. The andante featured some fine playing, and the lively allegro movement demonstrated more uniformity of tone, therefore blend. However, it also revealed some of the same faults of articulation and intonation as the first movement, and in the latter part of the movement all three stringed instruments were slightly under the note at times.
The Brahms work I was not particularly familiar with. A fiery opening led to a more tranquil section, soon disturbed by more vehemence, to be followed by more tranquility. In this work the viola tone was stronger and warmer. Certainly, this is a Romantic work, while the Mozart is Classical, implying a different approach. The cello pitch disappointed periodically. The scherzo of the second movement was full of verve and dynamic changes, to the point of sometimes being abrasive. The beautiful andante with its wonderful opening cello solo with soft piano accompaniment sang like a mellifluous song. It puzzles me why Brahms never wrote a cello concerto. He is reputed to have said, on hearing Dvořàk’s cello concerto ‘If I’d known a cello concerto could be like this, I would have written one’, or words to that effect. Yet both this and the wonderful cello solo in his second piano concerto seem to cry out for being part of a concerto.
Later, the piano takes up the theme; this was played in a delightfully delicate manner, then was joined by the cello with a lovely depth of tone and expression, to be followed by the other strings. The movement seems to express nostalgia and deep feeling. The allegro finale introduces a violin solo with piano accompaniment. Again there were intonation glitches – not major, to be sure. The other strings join in boisterously, before a chorale-like passage, the melody and harmony gently spelt out over a rippling piano accompaniment, before the excitement returns. Reiteration of the cello theme from the previous movement, including on the piano, and variations thereon gave interest and variety to this movement.
Schumann’s marvellous piano quartet has special significance for me, so I was greatly looking forward to a live performance of it. After a spooky, sotto voce chord, we are immediately into the four-chord theme that dominates the movement, in both solemn and jocund moods. (Did Sibelius consciously or unconsciously base the opening of his famous soulful hymn-like theme in Finlandia on this tune?) The pianissimo on the piano was both chilling and thrilling.
The Schumann work found the ensemble much better blended. The scherzo and its two trios were joyous, and skilfully played. As the programme note put it, “nimble with a sense of urgency.” The andante features a sublime melody on viola and violin, later tellingly repeated on the cello. For this movement, the cello had to re-tune her bottom string from C to B-flat, and then tune it back to C for the vivace finale, which was a brisk and busy movement.
This was a wonderful programme, but I was disappointed in its execution. It seems that this group of players have not had enough time together to ‘jell’; their situation is very different from established quartets such as the New Zealand String Quartet, where blended tone is marked. My remarks about intonation perhaps need to be seen in light of the temperature. Unusually for this hall, I found myself cold after the first work, and had to add a garment earlier discarded. The heaters were put on in the interval, and this improved matters; they were not left on for the last work, but this was not necessary. It may have been that the players’ fingers were cold, and that this affected intonation and articulation.
When the members of the ensemble took their bows, Caroline Almonte gestured to the piano, revealing her delight in playing on the Society’s Fazioli grand piano.