Unmissable violin sonata programme from APO’s Canadian concertmaster and Sarah Watkins

Andrew Beer (violin) and Sarah Watkins (piano)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G, Op 30 No 3
Lilburn: Violin Sonata (1950)
Good: ‘And Dreams Rush Forth to Greet the Distance’
Bartok: Two Rhapsodies
Ravel: Sonata in A for violin and piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 21 June, 3 pm

The violinist’s name would have been new to Wellingtonians – the recently appointed Concertmaster of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra; the pianist however, is very well known. But the audience was disappointing: see comments in my Coda.

I think this programme, entirely of worthwhile, interesting works, but containing only one familiar, major work, might have seemed missable to non-subscribers, unless driven by Lilburn-loyalty or special love of Bartok, and who would be paying $40 for a seat.

In the event, it was an excellent concert. The performance of Beethoven’s Op 30 No 3 was strong, spirited and with striking emphasis on rhythmic elements and the engaging melodies; the two players sounded as if they’d been playing together for years. The middle movement, a sort of minuet, adhered perfectly to its marking, ‘molto moderato e grazioso’, and piano and violin conversed equably, animatedly, tossing ideas to and fro. As the notes pointed out, there is playfulness in the last movement, as the two seemed to push each other a little, and drew attention to themselves with misleading expectations, and untimely modulations. All these features increase the pleasure to be found in a piece of music and one of Beethoven’s gifts was his ability to tease and mislead the audience while creating a masterpiece. All this was here in the performance.

This Lilburn violin sonata in B minor was actually his third. It was written in 1950 for Frederick Page (pianist and head of the music department of Victoria University College) and violinist Ruth Pearl, after Lilburn had become a lecturer at the university; they premiered it at the university and then played it again three months later in Wigmore Hall in London.

The others two sonatas, in C and E flat, were written in 1943; they were first performed, respectively, by Maurice Clare (violin) and Noel Newson (piano), and by Vivien Dixon (violin) and Anthea Harley Slack (piano).

Probably my first live hearing of the present one was at a Mulled Wine concert at Paekakariki in 2011, when Sarah Watkins accompanied Donald Armstrong. There’s an Atoll recording of both the E flat and the present one, issued in 2011, featuring Elizabeth Holowell (violin) and Dean Sky-Lucas (piano). Atoll ACD 941. It was reviewed that year in Middle C by my colleague Peter Mechen.

Andrew Beer’s comments in the programme notes about Lilburn, from a newcomer’s standpoint, are interesting. In his remarks I get a hint of surprise at what might be seen as a sort of obsession with finding a New Zealand voice, as if the job of a creative artist were to interpret or reflect his own land rather than simply to write attractive, listenable music. Such an idea, which is still current, would have puzzled Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev (among many others). “Telling our own stories” has become a tedious, clichéd justification for supporting New Zealand artists in all fields. There are far more important reasons.

Worrying about expressing and echoing one’s own country has been an aberration that started with the growth of nationalism in the mid 19th century, which has distorted attitudes in so many areas and fuelled the political hatreds that have dogged the world ever since.

However, Lilburn was simply a man of his times, in that matter.

Fortunately, by the time he was 35, Lilburn was writing music that exuded more self-confidence and less seeking for a New Zealand voice, and this sonata is a good example. It is now his own voice, mature, individual, yet echoing the sounds of his immediate predecessors, like Vaughan Williams, tonal and lyrical, though by no means conservative or sentimental. It has also absorbed the character of European music of the time, the tough-minded mid-century; there are moments of dissonance.

It is unusual in being in once movement, with five sections alternating between Molto moderato and Allegro. The performance establishes a searching quality which finds more confidence in the first Allegro section, with both instruments sharing a dance-like episode. The emotional undulations made the second Allegro sound like a concluding phase, but the repeat of Tempo I quickly justified itself.

In my review of that Paekakariki concert I described the sonata as “an impressive, vigorous, tightly-argued work that should have become one of the leading chamber pieces of the New Zealand repertoire.” That still stands.

The rest of the programme
The Lilburn was followed by a shorter piece by Canadian composer Scott Good, a competition piece. The notes reproduce the composer’s own views of the requirements of such a piece: very interesting and well-judged. It gave plenty of scope for virtuosity, drew on contemporary compositional trends, and it certainly, as stipulated, held the attention of an audience. Nor did it seem to think for a minute of attempting to find a ‘Canadian voice’. It simply expressed a confidence in its ability to find melody and treatments that would sound interesting. The performance delivered on all those counts, with the pianist as wholly involved in the idiom as the violinist himself.

After the interval, Bartok’s Two Rhapsodies, quite substantial pieces. Both were played with an aim of making civilized, lyrical (up to a point) music from peasant material that was unsophisticated even if complex in its own way. The first is considerably more conventional and ‘westernised’ than the second, which seems closer to its folk origins, more driven, avoiding any risk of charming the listener, with the piano in percussive mode and the violin, untypically harsh in places. One of my scribbled notes remarked that it was undoubtedly the most formidable piece on the programme, but perhaps, given that, it was over-long.

The programme ended with Ravel’s Violin Sonata, again, not one of his most familiar or engaging; somewhat severe with tunes that might be described as gestures rather than the real thing. So it’s one of those works that one has heard several times, but only the jazz-inflected second movement, is really familiar. Nevertheless, the performance extracted all its virtues, both of melody and structure – the element that allows melody to take a firm grip and holds the attention.

There have been a lot of opinions and argument about the functions of the critic, from at least the time of Plato, and no doubt in earlier civilisations. Over the years I’ve been tackled for making comments that are alleged to be outside the purview of a critic, perhaps touching on the political context of a composer’s work, his private life, the players’ circumstances, the question of state support for the arts, availability and cost of venues, the condition of music education, value judgements touching the various genres of music, and on and on… all matters of great importance in my opinion.

This is preliminary to an observation about the audience size.

The weather was cold; the venue, since last year after the closure indefinite (?) of the Town Hall, not perhaps ideal for reasons that I need not spell out, though acoustically and in seating comfort, very good. That leaves the programme; and here we find an awareness hiatus between some performers and some promoters who agree to a programme, and an average audience, about what appeals on the one hand, and what, on the other, looks a bit esoteric, worthy but not emotionally compelling.

Till last year I was on the committee of the Wellington Chamber Music Society (as it was) almost from the beginning of these Sunday concerts in 1983, and so have attended a great many of them. The number of subscribers in the Sunday series has declined steadily over many years, and so there is not a large, paid-up contingent who will come anyway, having paid for all the concerts. I can’t remember a smaller audience for a Wellington Chamber Music concert; yet they continue to be a vital element in Wellington’s music scene.

This is just one of the many musical and other organisations that is suffering from the Town Hall’s closure. Christchurch has resolved to restore its Town Hall for twice the cost of the estimate for ours. What’s the matter with our Council?


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