Clik the ensemble – you’ll be glad you did….

New Zealand Chamber Music presents:

John Chen (piano) / Natalie Lin (violin) / Edward King (‘cello)

ENESCU – Prelude and Fugue for solo piano
BRITTEN – Suite for Violin and Piano Op.6
GARETH FARR – Shadow of the Hawk
SCHUBERT – Piano Trio in B-flat Major D. 898

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 22nd August 2015

What a lovely idea for a concert! – each member of the “Clik the ensemble” trio was given the chance to shine more-or-less as a soloist in different works during the first half, while the second half featured all three musicians playing the programme’s major work. It’s almost certainly something that’s been done before, but surely no more enjoyably and successfully as happened here.

“Clik the ensemble” is a group made up of young soloists who were members of groups that won previous NZ Community Trust Chamber Music Competitions – John Chen in 2001 and both Natalie Lin and Edward King in 2005. All have since successfully participated in further competitions, and have now come together to share their love of chamber music for the benefit of audiences throughout the country, Welington being the mid-point of their tour for Chamber Music New Zealand.

The concert began with John Chen as soloist, playing the music of Roumania’s most famous musician, Georges Enescu. While more widely known as a violinist, (he was actually Yehudi Menuhin’s teacher, and in 1949 made a famous recording of Bach’s solo violin Sonatas and Partitas in 1949) he was obviously no slouch as a pianist (Alfred Cortot thought highly of his playing), and actually produced several works for the keyboard, including two full-scale sonatas.

John Chen played the Prelude et Fugue, which was written in 1903, when Enescu was just 22. It seemed to me to be a kind of neoclassical work (along the lines of Grieg’s “Holberg Suite”, though more harmonically discursive), one owing a great deal to Bach’s keyboard example. The Prelude’s festive character was brought out with the music’s middle section’s celebratory and clangorous sounds, the sounds then reaching sideways and outwards to harmonic realms that gave the music a wonderful, exploratory perspective. The bell-sounds eventually “morphed ” into slow, pendulous cadences with time almost standing still in between each chord – a breath-catching effect.

The fugue stole into this world via a distinctively ornamented figuration, one which rhythmically put me “off the scent” for a while until I got the music’s “schwung”. It all then took the form of variations which again felt celebratory, mirroring the first movement’s festive atmosphere. John Chen played the piece in a masterly fashion – of course he’s well-versed in music of contrapuntal nature, having performed the Well-Tempered Clavier in concert with great distinction. Such neoclassical interweaving held no terrors for his educated fingers and his lucid, far-reaching grasp of the overall structure.

The pianist didn’t, I think, overdo any particular aspect of the work’s character, but kept things ever so slightly enigmatic – we were left pondering as to whether the music was an act of homage to Bach (a kind of pastiche in the word’s best sense?), or a determinedly neoclassical work, one which unashamedly uses baroque music as a kind of “springboard” to revitalize present-day creativity (as Stravinsky was wont to try and do)? Chen didn’t nail the music’s colours to any particular mast, playing it as he would any of the “48” and letting the composer’s own piano writing suggest what it might – a masterly performance.

Benjamin Britten’s Op. 6 Suite for violin and piano followed bringing Natalie Lin to the platform with John Chen. Britten wrote this music partly in Vienna and then in London – he had won a scholarship to travel in Europe during 1934 and (as one would) spent some time in Vienna. The work had some success, being selected for performance at a contemporary music festival in Barcelona by none other than Anton Webern and Ernest Ansermet, two avant-garde “toughies” – which would have been powerful encouragement for a composer still in his early twenties.

I was really taken with Natalie Lin’s playing of this work, in particular the movements which allowed her acute sensitivity and infinite variety of bowing and mastery of subtle coloring to “speak”. It wasn’t commanding, big-boned playing, but she had all the technique required to front up to the opening abrasive declarations (Britten showing his youthful compositional muscles) – however, she came into her own in the more intimate parts of the work, especially the third-movement lullaby. Elsewhere, her playing had a wry alertness, a precise delineation which missed nothing, and which matched John Chen’s elegance and quickfire responses, their partnership making the concluding waltz movement an absolute delight.

One of New Zealand’s most high-profile composers is Gareth Farr, whose 1997 work Shadow of the Hawk, was written for the partnership of James Tennant and Katherine Austin. Like a lot of Farr’s music, it’s a high-impact, extremely physical piece to play “requiring considerable stamina” as the composer put it. One hears the influences of both the composer’s experiences in the percussion sensible “Strike”, and the impact made on his sensibilities by the gamelan orchestras he played in as a student. This work has wonderfully-wrought contrasts – heart-stopping ascents to other-worldly realms, violent hammerings and tightly-worked motoric passages, states of drifting reverie and long-drawn crescendo leading to spectacular climaxes. It proved a marvellous “work-out” for both performers.

The young ‘cellist Edward King took to these things like the proverbial duck to water – his playing impressed with its spontaneity and enjoyment of physical engagement. He and John Chen made the most out of each of the music’s sequences, their playing drifting with the music’s inwardness in the more dreamy sections and winding up the tensions to maximum effect for the physical outbursts whose volcanic irruptions caused much excitement, right through the mighty crescendo taking all of us to to the music’s galvanic tumble-down finish.

Having “showcased” the individual talents of these musicians the concert now presented their corporate abilities as “Clik the ensemble” – and in this work by Schubert the combination resulted in the most beautiful performance of this music I can remember hearing. Right from the opening the music’s lyricism and sense of well-being was strongly in evidence. I’ve heard performance of this music delivered heroically, lots of muscle and strongly-advanced cadences, making a thrustful and forthright impression, which I really enjoy – and I though that “Clik” , being of an impetuously youthful persuasion, would similarly tear into the music at the outset. So, it was with some surprise that I registered the playing’s poetry in motion, delivered with sufficient energy to advance the music’s cause, but not allowing a single kind of character to unduly dominate.

Later in the movement there were moments of energized excitement which of course stood out all the more, rather than being ongoing episodes in a kind of big-boned epic technicolour drama – here instead was both playfulness and poetry, the irruptions of impulse as delight in first sensations. What a good thing for us all that music is always more “complete” than it can ever be actually realized at one time, so that, however satisfying a performance, one can always look forward to something else being brought out and enjoyed the next time round.

This was an approach which allowed the players’ individuality to speak at certain points, with Natalie Lin’s soft playing once again an absolute joy, and providing the perfect foil for Edward King’s freshness and vitality. And John Chen’s infinite variety of touch and phrasing seemed endlessly responsive to what both of his partners were doing, creating a mellifluous “exchange of equals” for our constant pleasure.

Perfection? – well, the Scherzo might have been a bit more bucolic, a tad more rustic, merely as a more marked contrast to the beauty of the trio section and the sheer urbanity of the rest of the music. Having said that, in some performances I’ve felt the music of the finale actually borders in places towards the end on garrulousness, but there was none of that, here – one didn’t dare stop listening for fear of missing some felicitous detail, some sigh of remembrance or impish impulse of pleasure.

One will relish the opportunity, whenever it presents itself in future, to “Clik the ensemble” – the pleasures of doing so this time round alone will long be remembered.









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