Nikau Ensemble at St Mark’s Lower Hutt with Mozart and Dohnányi

Nikau Chamber Ensemble (Konstanze Artmann, violin; Karen Batten, flute; Christiaan van der Zee, viola; Margaret Guldborg, cello)

Mozart: Quartet in C, KA [i.e. Appendix to Koechel’s catalogue] 171
Dohnányi: Serenade in C, Op.10 (Marcia, Romanza, Scherzo, Tema con variazoni, Rondo) for string trio

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 21 October 2015, 12.15pm

I had gone to St. Mark’s expecting to hear Arohanui Strings, young string players of primary school age who have free tuition in a Sistema-style programme in the Hutt Valley. Instead, as I entered the church, I heard a flute being warmed up in the vestry.

On came the Nikau Ensemble, minus their oboist Madeline Sakofsky, who was indisposed. They were scheduled to appear next week. Not that the ensemble disappointed, but it was not until an announcement at the end of the concert that I learned the two had swapped places, and the Arohanui Strings will perform next week.   Maybe the regular members of St. Mark’s audience were aware earlier of this change, but the occasional attender did not know of it.

The Mozart work immediately made me sit up – the flute quartet made such a lovely sound. The excellent articulation of the notes in all parts was a delight. I recently read a book that consisted of interviews with leading sopranos and mezzos of the 1950s – 1990s (including Dame Kiri te Kanawa), and most of them said that Mozart was one of the hardest composers to sing – everything had to be clean and clear, and there was nowhere to hide: the line was very exposed. It is the same with the chamber music. These players were clear and accurate, yet expressive.

The variations consisted of some in major mode and others in minor, which added to their interest. The last one featured pizzicato in the lower parts, with the melody above. This gave a cheerful effect, to end a gracious work.

The Serenade of Hungarian composer Dohnányi was for string trio. Mozart’s work was written when he was 21, Dohnányi’s when he was 26. It began with a March which was jolly rather than pompous or solemn. The players produced great warmth of tone, and it was noticeable that for this music of 1904 they ‘dug deeper’ into the strings than with the Classical-era Mozart piece. The Romance began with a long-breathed melody on viola, over pizzicato on the other strings. Then the two upper strings continued the melodic line over cello pizzicato, the latter often on two strings at the same time.

The third movement was an excited yet genial Scherzo. The instruments entered one at a time, from the highest to the lowest.   Their sonority was very fine. Then theme and variations again, Dohnányi’s version beginning with a chorale-like theme. The tonality moved into minor harmonies, becoming more sombre and wistful; the movement ended on that note.

The Rondo that ended the work was brisk and cheerful. It was a busy movement for all the players. Towards the end, long chords depicted a folk-like melody, or perhaps a dance. A quiet ending received the full-stop of a loud final chord. The musicians showed real rapport in their playing together, and the audience of 40+ gave the ensemble appreciative applause.


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