Accomplished duo play Brahms at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Catherine Norton (piano) and Carolyn van Leuven (violin)

Brahms: Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor, Op 78
Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata (1853)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 February, 12:15 pm

The lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s started last Wednesday; Middle C neglected it.

But I was delighted to be at this one, starting the year so splendidly with Brahms. Catherine Norton’s name is reasonably familiar in Wellington, and I realized that Carolyn van Leuven’s ought to have been, too, as her short biography revealed, though her origins are in Canterbury, with studies and work in Europe and America, that she has played with the NZSO. She is now working in Wellington.

It was clear from the start that this was a seriously rehearsed performance, with care over balance, each taking pains to offer space and attention to the other; the piano, even with the lid on the long stick, remained a perfect partner. Brahms offers plenty of warmth and lyricism in his violin sonatas: the warmth of the violin and discretion of the piano part. They handle bits of melodies from two of his songs, ‘Regenlied’ and ‘Nachklang’, which offer a sort of emotional basis to the music. Though it is hardly fair to expect listeners today to pick up themes from a quotation from a song in another language, the symbolism of rain and then of sun shine, the alternating feeling of sadness and peace were there; in the second poem rain mingles with tears and they are audible in the semi-quavers in the last movement.

But Brahms is always careful to avoid emotional references that are too bold and precise or too obvious. The rather secretive opening of the Adagio led perhaps to a slightly too emphatic piano passage: perhaps understanding the poetic reference would have helped the listener, but that is inadmissible. The finale, Allegro, however was both calmly paced and even, though quite assertive, clearly followed the detailed dynamic markings, bringing to an end what was a singularly polished and satisfying performance.

To play the Sonata before Brahms’s Scherzo contribution to the ‘FAE’ collaboration with Schumann and his pupil Dietrich – a gift to their violinist friend Joseph Joachim – tends to draw attention to the Scherzo’s surprising maturity, written 25 years earlier, when Brahms was 20. The confidence of the brisk opening phase with its clean staccato piano chords, followed by a broad, meditative section were splendidly captured by the players, as if Brahms was referring to the character of the other movements of the sonata for which he was not responsible. Yet the feeling almost of grandeur towards the end could have been felt as the conclusion of the work rather than just the third movement (Schumann was assigned to both the second and last movements). It’s strange that the entire sonata is not played much.

This was a recital that dramatically illustrated the value of, the gratitude we should feel for, the year-long series of Wednesday lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. For me at least, if I may for a moment reflect on my own relationship with them. In the mid 80s, I went regularly to the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, and pinned on various departmental notice boards details of forthcoming concerts, encouraging awareness of all the delights to be found there. They were probably a catalyst that led to my taking early retirement from the Public Service and devoting myself to both nature conservation and the preservation of historic buildings in Wellington, as well as to writing about music.

St Andrew’s, led by its minister, John Murray, was also important in dramatizing various civic issues such as the preservation of Wellington’s historic buildings. This was the time of building frenzy when council and developers were allies in the widespread destruction of scores of buildings that should simply have been valued and restored. The building boom culminated in the collapse of 1988; the bitter irony followed with many of them, many head offices, being vacated soon after by the companies that had built them, abandoning Wellington for Auckland and elsewhere.

One minor but precious one was 22 The Terrace, a very early building and near neighbour of the church, which survives thanks to the efforts of John Murray and others including the feisty ‘Save our City’ campaign.

The mid 80s (1986) also marked the first New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, with its important three-week-long series of lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s. Those concerts drew together a great many leading New Zealand musicians, as well as a few from abroad, who were not the main focus of the big festival events. The lunchtime concerts, and for a couple of festivals, daily early evening concerts as well, continued to enrich the festival till, in the post-Chris Doig era, through the later 90s, its artistic standards declined, turning away from a focus on acknowledged classics in the performing arts.

With the devoted enterprise of Marjan van Waardenberg and the generous support of the church itself, St Andrew’s helps preserve much of Wellington’s important musical character.

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