NZCT chamber music competitors come down town to St Andrew’s with interesting lunchtime treat

Nicholas Kovacev (piano), Eliana Dunford (violin) and Bethany Angus (cello)

First movement of Smetana’s Trio in G minor, Op 15 – Moderato assai – Più animato
Bach: Toccata in E minor, BWV 914
Lilburn: Sonatina No 2
Rachmaninov: Élégie in E flat minor, Op 3 No 1
Mendelssohn: Andante and Rondo Capriccioso in E, Op 14

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 June, 12:15 pm

Here at St Andrew’s was the piano trio which had played the Moderato movement from Smetana’s Trio in G minor at the concert at the end of the NZSM Queen’s Birthday Chamber Music Weekend on 1 June (see the review of that date). What a treat to hear them play it again! And I’d wondered whether the group would now fill the rest of the programme with other pieces for the same players.  No, the violinist and cellist retired after playing the Smetana, and pianist Nicholas Kovacev carried on, playing pieces on his own.

I was most impressed by the trio’s earlier performance of Smetana’s poignant trio, which he wrote following the death of his daughter; as well as the convincingly expressed feeling, there was also a degree more polish in the performance as a whole, which did not detract from the emotional rawness but really made me want to hear what they would do with the entire work. Their rapport was very conspicuous in every respect; including the demonstrative and expressive crescendos and diminuendos and beautifully gauged tempo variations.

Kovacev then played four piano pieces that had the virtue of being unhackneyed, generally not very familiar. The programme note pointed out correctly that the Bach Toccata (BWV 914) that comprised Un poco allegro, Adagio and Fugue, was not well known. It made a quiet start in a thoughtful, improvisatory way before turning into a quicker Allegro; the Adagio too had a rhapsodic feel, as if Bach was rather hoping that a more memorable theme would come to him (but didn’t). The Fugue did the things a fugue is supposed to do, and Kovacev handled it with impressive clarity and confidence, its interesting turns and its testing of the sharply contrasted pursuit of the evolving fugal patterns.

Lilburn’s Sonatina No 2 of 1962 – late in his tonal-writing career – is also pretty unfamiliar. It is included in Vol 4 of the Trust CDs of Lilburn’s piano music recorded by Dan Poynton; it’s also to be found in a YouTube performance by New Zealand pianist Jeffrey Grice in Paris, where he introduces it, commenting interestingly on its thematic similarity (tenuous I think) with Ravel’s Sonatine. It certainly represents, like the third symphony, a step towards a more modernist idiom than is found in most of the more familiar music from the 1940s and 50s, but repays repeated hearings. This was an authoritative and thoroughly convincing interpretation.

From the same Opus number, 3, as the Prelude in C sharp minor came Rachmaninov’s Elegie in E flat. Over a continuous rolling bass, its elegiac quality is hardly of a grief-stricken kind – rather just pensive and soberly contemplative. It has a lovely limpid middle section that reaches a slightly unexpected climax before returning to section A. This piece, from a sharply different era and style from the two earlier pieces, found the pianist in admirable control.

Finally a more familiar piece by the 18-year-old Mendelssohn, though I wonder how familiar is today; the Andante and Rondo capriccioso is a sort of bon-bon that I first heard in my teens on the Dinner Music programme of the then 2YC channel (now RNZ Concert), played I think by Julius Katchen. Kovacev negotiated the rambling, rhapsodic introduction interestingly before the Allegro Rondo section takes off that, despite the pianist’s only noticeable, minor smudge, proved a delightful way to end the concert.

The trio is competing in this year’s NZCT Chamber Music Contest, the semi-finals and finals of which will be in Wellington in the weekend of 1-2 August. We wish them, and of course the other competing groups that were heard at the 1 June concert, success.



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