New trio by Ken Young, an under-rated Saint-Saëns trio and Beethoven, not as you know him

NZTrio (Sarah Watkin – piano, Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello)

Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D (arranged for piano trio)
Kenneth Young: Piano Trio (a new commission)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op. 92

Expressions: Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Monday 19 October, 7:30 pm

The programmes put together by NZTrio are always unpredictable or eccentric or from left field; there’s always something that attracts strongly, something that rings a bell and induces you to give it a go, and something quite unknown – usually a new work and often by a New Zealand composer. The latter was the case here – a commission by the trio itself from New Zealand composer Kenneth Young.

The piece that was unknown but rang a bell was Beethoven’s arrangement of his second symphony. As the programme note recorded, Beethoven (and most composers in the days before orchestral music was available on record, over the radio or even in frequent live performance) made arrangements of orchestral works for piano or small ensemble. (When I was young I acquired piano transcriptions of several Beethoven symphonies, and duet versions of Weber’s overtures).

I have to admit that it was hard to get rid of the orchestral sound and I felt for some time, through the adagio introduction, that too much was missing. By force of will I succeeded (after a while, more or less) in hearing the music on its own terms, and then it often sounded like a reduction of either a piano or a violin concerto, depending on which instrument was taking the main melodic line. What seemed most difficult to adjust to was when the piano took on the fast accompanying figures played by the orchestral strings or by woodwinds. The situation wasn’t helped by the imbalance between piano and violin on the one hand, and the cello on the other: the latter often obscured by the former. This might have reflected genuine difficulty in achieving balance between passages that were conceived for groups of instruments that found their balance more naturally.

The above relates more to the first movement than to the second or the fourth where the distribution of parts seemed to adapt more readily to the smaller ensemble. The arrangement was fairly comfortable in the Larghetto, and in the last movement, the fugal character of the writing certainly leant itself to the trio well, though I sensed that the speed and the handling of the fast ostinato accompanying figures didn’t come easy. Things only got more hair-raising in the Coda.

Though readers will sense that I have misgivings about the need to exhume a score like this, the music was still Beethoven, and the musicians still highly skilled and sensitive to the essence of his composition and its structure, and I’m sure audience curiosity would have been stimulated.

The new piece was a total success. I should, perhaps, confess to being a long-time admirer of Ken Young’s music which finds a place between rigorous modernity, as in serialism and its lesser, but still alienating incarnations, and soft-centred, traditional, tonal music. Here, in the piano trio commissioned by NZTrio, there are tunes; they evolve and weave coherently with disparate material; there are alternating episodes of calm, where the music drifts into near silence.

I did not read the programme note beforehand; but I had scribbled notes about the music seeming to be inspired (is that the right word?) by feelings of alarm or anger at political events around the world and/or in New Zealand. When I read the programme at the interval I was surprised to find that the notes recorded that Young said that he had been affected by “a couple of things that were going on – political and societal issues here in New Zealand. My ire was raised and … I always find it a good time to pick up a pen and take it out on a piece of manuscript paper.”

And the notes reflected my own impressions of the significance of the moods portrayed: the anger and frustration with which the piece begins leading to calmer and more accepting phase, concluding that one should put external troubles aside and cultivate one’s garden.

In plain musical terms, the first few pages with its hints of Messiaen or Shostakovich, the clarity of the writing for the three instruments, there was a compelling appeal where agitation subsides towards resolution, such as in the long solo cello followed by the piano drifting into silence; and then the muted violin and cello uttering ghostly, subliminal murmurings. I was moved too by the elegiac duetting by piano and violin. Life and optimism return at the end.

It got a thoroughly persuasive performance and I’m sure there will be a life for this piece long after the attention given to its initial exposure fades.

Finally, the second piano trio by Saint-Saëns: twice in the past six months I’ve heard student trios play the first movement and that had surprised me.

Let me record what I wrote at the second hearing of the trio’s first movement which I had first heard in June:

“I was even more impressed hearing it again, and wondered why I hadn’t been … acquainted with this accomplished, compelling work before, a work that deserves to be in the standard piano trio repertoire (perhaps it is in other countries). I’d have thought that it would, from its publication in 1892, have been confirmed as a major chamber music work of the late 19th century, certainly of the French school. The trouble would have been the long-lasting disparagement of Saint-Saëns as a great composer…”

I could well tidy up some of the syntax, but having now heard the whole work, I would not disagree with my opinion, especially given the well-studied performance that NZTrio lavished on it. The subdued urgency of the opening movement demands attention from the first and though it becomes calmer, it never loses its compelling momentum. I would only say that the three middle movement (there are five) are less impressive, lighter in spirit with attractive melodies that take on changing moods which is no less agreeable. The last movement has a buoyancy and impulsiveness that approaches the first movement’s drive. It is achieved through fast fugal passages, laced with Gallic wit and an energy that befits a last movement but doesn’t in the end quite match the first in weight and substance.

Nevertheless this was a most rewarding concert, very characteristic of the adventurousness and musical conviction of these splendid players. They play again in the Wellington City Gallery on Tuesday 10 November, the Saint-Saëns replaced with Fauré’s Piano Trio.

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