Chamber Music New Zealand
Haydn: Piano Trio no.42 in E flat, Hob. XV:30
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (arr. Steuermann)
Brahms: Piano Trio no.1 in B, Op.8
Vienna Piano Trio (David McCarroll, violin; Matthias Gredler, cello; Stefan Mendl, piano)
Michael Fowler Centre
Friday, 16 October 2015, 7.30pm
It is wonderful for chamber music audiences in New Zealand to welcome back an ensemble of the prestige and reputation of the Vienna Piano Trio – but this time, with a new violinist, a young American, who joined the Trio only months ago. Although the downstairs of the Michael Fowler Centre was not full (the upstairs is not opened for chamber music concerts), the audience was perfectly creditable. It became rather hot in the auditorium; the outside temperature was perhaps warmer than the hall authorities had envisaged. Fortunately for the Trio, their garb was informal.
The use of a platform a couple of steps lower than the main stage brought the musicians closer to their audience, and permitted something of a chamber music ‘feel’ to the concert, despite the large venue.
The programme was thoroughly based in the Trio’s home city; Haydn spent a good part of his life there and died there; Schoenberg was born and lived a great part of his life there, and Brahms spent most of his adult life there and died there.
Excellent programme notes on all the works in the concert were partly wasted at the time by the usual strange New Zealand custom of having the lighting too low. This does not occur, in my experience, in Europe or the United Kingdom, where they obviously want people to be able to read their programmes.
Haydn’s chamber music is always a great delight, and this trio, probably his last, though basically Classical, contains many more adventurous elements, and is quite substantial. The allegro moderato opening movement was light and bright, but with some lovely sonorities. Mendl’s light touch on the piano emulated well the sound of the pianos of Haydn’s day. This lightness of touch was echoed by the other instruments.
The second movement, andante con moto, had almost a modern sound, with appoggiaturas and other ornaments being semitones to the melody notes, and sometimes making minor rather than major intervals. In short, quite skittish, or even jazzy on occasion. There were quick dynamic changes that kept the movement lively.
In both the music and the playing there was delicacy, and also strength, making for continuing interest, and utter vitality and musicality of performance.
I would hazard a guess that Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is the most frequently performed of Schoenberg’s compositions, in its original version for string sextet, or more often in the composer’s arrangement for string orchestra,, the one most often recorded and performed. The version for piano trio was made by Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964), a pupil, friend and performing associate of Schoenberg’s. He was an influential figure in Vienna, and in the United States where he taught, having fled from the Nazis in 1938.
The work is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920). The stages of Dehmel’s poem are reflected throughout the composition, beginning with the sadness of a young woman who, walking with her new lover, confesses that she is carrying the child of another man.
The music builds slowly from a very quiet opening, and then excited melodies on the strings intrude. The build-up of intensity in the music for the moment when the woman confesses, is gripping, tense, and climactic. The violinist elicited an anguished tone from his instrument; the cello responded with calm but glorious tone, as the man sought to reassure the woman that their relationship continued, and that the child would be transfigured by their shared love.
In the second half, the cello (representing the man) declares his feelings and reassurances, to which the violin (woman) responds. The piano plays rippling passages below a sublime violin, with alternating echoes on the cello. The parts continue in mellow accord. Passion ensues briefly, before a return to serenity, reflecting the man’s acceptance and forgiveness of the woman; a slow ending winds up the eventful walk in the woods.
Despite the spell-binding playing, I was not convinced that Steuermann had improved on Schoenberg’s own versions of the work – but of course he has made it available to a smaller ensemble.
Next came what is perhaps my favourite of Brahms’s chamber works. For this half of the concert I moved to a much better seat, further back in the auditorium, where I could see all three instruments much better. The wonderful allegro con brio’s opening immediately summoned up ideas of pathos, nostalgia and longing – typical Romantic-era sentiments, perhaps. The parts for the instruments are so marvellously balanced and interwoven, and the subtleties were beautifully conveyed. The variety of dynamics obtained by these players, even in a single phrase, was quite staggering. While the Trio seemed perfectly at home in all the works, perhaps this Romantic music composed by Brahms is their especial forte.
The scherzo (allegro molto) second movement opened with brilliant rhythmic figures that were both dance-like and ominous. It was a very spirited movement, with great contrasts, including quiet passages. As the movement became more complex around the reiteration of the main theme, there were notable mellow notes from the lower register of the violin – almost as though a viola had suddenly been introduced. The calm ending belied the very exciting nature of this movement.
The adagio movement opened with delicious slow chords on the piano, soon joined by the strings playing stark harmonies. This was such a completely different atmosphere from that evoked in the scherzo. The melding of the sounds and the rapport between the instruments were absolutely superb. There was a gentle ending, before the Finale (allegro) rippled into life on cello and piano. The violin’s entry led to a dramatic, almost fiery section, that leaves one suspended regarding what key it is in. Brahms’s way of putting one in tonality no-man’s-land is a feature of a number of his works, but one is led out of uncertainty to a new and vibrant reality. The work ends triumphantly. Brahms could hardly have been better served than by these splendid players.
An encore followed: the second movement of Beethoven’s Trio Op.70, no.2 (allegretto). It was very calm and peaceful, and delightful to hear, in a mood not dissimilar from that of the Brahms, but comprising a couple of themes, and variations upon them.
The audience thoroughly appreciated the skill of the musicians, and the music they performed so gloriously.