Waikanae’s chamber music year starts brilliantly with Amici Ensemble

Amici Ensemble
(Waikanae Music Society)

Violins: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal; violas: Julia Joyce and Andrew Thomson; cellos: Andrew Joyce and Ken Ichinose

Strauss: Prelude (Sextet) to Capriccio
Anthony Ritchie: Ants: Sextet for Strings, Op 185
Boccherini: Quintet in D, G 270 – Grave and Tempo di fandango
Brahms: Sextet No 2 in G, Op 36

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 21 February, 2:30 pm

It is the season for beginnings of the year for series of concerts from a variety of musical organisations. After St Andrew’s on The Terrace comes the first of Wellington’s four main chamber music bodies, the Waikanae Music Society, which presents the most concerts: nine this year.

The Amici Ensemble, comprising leading NZSO players, has been a regular and prominent contributor at Waikanae. Its composition changes according to the demands of the music; for this concert, it’s a string sextet, and all but one of the works was for those six instruments.

Capriccio was Strauss’s last opera, written early in World War II, and premiered in Munich in October 1942. The Sextet which serves as its prelude is actually the beginning of the action: the Countess Madeleine (the main figure in the opera) and her brother are listening to a sextet written in honour of her approaching birthday. The opera is greatly loved by Strauss aficionados (including the writer), a ‘conversation piece’ that debates the relative merits of words and music in opera, drawing on an 18th century play, Prima la musica, poi le parole which Salieri composed as an opera. The Countess’s two suitors are a composer and a poet, and the question remains at the end unresolved but, for the audience, it’s rather unfairly stacked in favour of the music, given the Countess’s long and rapturous soliloquy that brings the piece to an ostensibly inconclusive end. The role of Countess became one of Kiri’s greatest, and Renée Fleming has been its supreme interpreter for many years.

The sextet is simply beautiful, and these players left us in no doubt that they think so too. It was warm and generous in spirit, giving little hint of what later in the opera becomes a somewhat intense debate; its easy invention and exquisite scoring hardly suggest a composer approaching his 80th birthday. From where I was sitting the sound was opulent and beautifully projected.

With a commission from Christchurch music patron Christopher Marshall, the Amici offered here the first performance of Anthony Ritchie’s Ants, inspired by the request for a sextet (the ant is a six-legged insect, if it had escaped your notice). Its five sections considered aspects of ants’ lives and characteristics, and fate. Obviously, not a heavy-weight composition seeking to plumb emotional or intellectual complexities, nor to tax the listener with avant-garde structures and idioms, yet it did not belittle the audience’s cultivated taste. The use of varied instrumental techniques and rhythmic patterns applied to agreeable tunes conjured up impressions that reflected the titles of each section, such as ‘Anteater’ and ‘Self-impaling’, created a sense, perhaps, of danger or ingenuity. The performance fully explored all its individuality and badinage.

The Fandango from Boccherini’s String Quintet in D, commonly played in the composer’s arrangement for guitar and string quartet, has rather replaced in popularity the formerly ubiquitous ‘Boccherini Minuet’ from the Quintet in E, G 275. It’s the last movement of the string quintet in D, G 270. The quintet (momentarily retiring the ensemble’s second viola) captured most convincingly, with spiccato bowing and other Guitar effects, the character of the Andalusian dance. The performance was lively, even spectacular, particularly the virtuosic part for the first cello, flawlessly rendered by Andrew Joyce. A splendid end for the first half of the concert.

Brahms second string sextet occupied the second half. Its first movement is one of Brahms most rapturous creations, the second theme of which employs the letters of the name of the young woman, Agathe, he had spurned a few years before and which later caused him pain; it got a performance that would perhaps only have increased Agathe’s sadness over her failure to overcome Brahms complex relationship with women, that led to his never marrying. For me, it ranks alongside the gorgeous second movement of the Op 18 sextet. The rest of the Op 36 does not quite equal that first movement, with a second movement, Scherzo, in common time, that doesn’t take off till the triple time Trio section. The players found a suggestion of uncertainty in the third movement, Poco Adagio; again one wondered whether that too reflected Brahms’s regrets. The last movement somewhat recaptures the spirit of the first, as the players tossed themes from one to another in the concluding Coda.

A great start to what looks like a splendid concert series.




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