Violist Gillian Ansell and student Aidan Verity with viola concertos at NZSM Showcase

New Zealand School of Music; Showcase week – viola students

Stamitz: Viola Concerto in D, Op.1
Schumann: Märchenbilder for Viola and Piano, Op.113
Walton: Viola Concerto

Aidan Verity, viola; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rafaella Garlick-Grice, piano

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 7 October 2015, 12.15pm

Having been told the previous day, and by the listed outline of concerts to come in this week of NZSM student recitals that this was to be one of ‘viola students’, I was disappointed to discover that in fact only one such student was playing, plus her teacher, Gillian Ansell.  I hastily add that it is no disappointment to hear Gillian Ansell play, but over the years NZSM has excelled with its viola students, and we have heard numbers of such students perform at end-of-year recitals.  So today was a surprise.

The works were not performed in the order in which they were printed the programme, and no announcement was made to indicate that the order of the first two items was reversed. This might have confused some.

The student, Aidan Verity (spelt in the programme also as ‘Aiden’) is a very accomplished performer. Her Stamitz concerto, in a piano reduction version, as was the later Walton concerto, quickly revealed her gorgeous tone and highly skilled playing.  Her deeper tones were particularly mellifluous.  She was a confident and assured performer, and made double-stopping and fast runs seem easy.  Just occasionally intonation was a little suspect, but these occasions became fewer and fewer as she warmed to her task.  The overall performance was delightful, and in places magical.

It was quite an exacting programme to have, following Stamitz’s three-movement concerto, the Schumann work of four movements.  There were some tricky passages here, especially in the Rasch (quick) third movement, which demands some fast finger-work.  The final movement, Langsam, mit melancholischen Ausdruck (slow, with melancholic expression) is, strangely, in a major key despite its melancholy nature, while two of the earlier movements are in minor keys, despite the more lively characters.

Aidan gave the last movement, with its abrupt ending, a fine interpretation, making the music sing soulfully; a curious contrast to the brighter temperament of the previous two movements.

To have perhaps the most important viola concerto in the repertoire rendered by a professional violist of Gillian Ansell’s standing and experience at a lunch-hour concert was an unexpected bonus.  Here, as in the Stamitz work, Rafaella Garlick-Grice’s performance at the piano was remarkable; her rendition of the orchestral role was thoroughly accurate, supportive, and idiomatic to the different characters of the two concertos.

Gillian Ansell introduced the work, telling us of the link between her viola and this concerto.  As the excellent programme note told us, the first recording of the concerto was made by the noted English violist Frederick Riddle who was a previous owner of her viola, and she thinks it likely that that recording was made using what is now her instrument.

Ansell took a little time to settle, but then played splendidly, with a mellow sound.  However, despite the skill of the performers, I found the concerto did not ‘grab’ me; the absence of an orchestra subjected the work to too severe a test as the lack of orchestral colour, variety of timbres left it feeling a rather cold piece, even pedestrian in places. Yet this was an admirable performance by both Gillian and Rafaella which revealed the music’s lyric qualities but was simply not able to exploit them as fully as orchestral support would have allowed.   It goes without saying that the many technical difficulties were well within Gillian Ansell’s grasp.

To say the pianist’s contribution to this concert was major, is an understatement.  As in most of Schumann’s music for instrument and piano or voice and piano, the latter is vital, its part and varied.  To play two concertos substituting for orchestra in the one concert, plus another major work is a considerable challenge, and one that this performer fully met.

As I’d expected, there was a bigger audience than on the first two days; for Wednesday is the usual day for St. Andrew’s lunchtime concerts.  The timing of these concerts in the school holidays might also have contributed to the rather disappointing turnouts.  Though the programme ran a quarter of an hour longer than the usual lunchtime concert, I did not notice anyone leaving, which suggests that these concerts are not attended in the lunch-breaks by many workers in the area who had to return to their jobs.