Marvellous programme of string sextets from Amici Ensemble and Wellington Chamber Music

Amici Ensemble
(Wellington Chamber Music Trust)Anthony Ritchie: Ants: Sextet for Strings, Op.185
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Op.70
Brahms: Sextet in G, Op.36

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 15 May 2016, 3.00pm

It is heartening and impressive to see that a New Zealand composer has written 185 opus numbers and indeed, as I write, Anthony Ritchie’s flute concerto is being broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert. His Sextet was commissioned this year by Christopher Marshall for the Amici Ensemble. This work is apparently a follow-on from his octet, appropriately named ‘Octopus’. Taking the first syllable of the new work’s grouping might have been dangerous, so instead we have the first syllable of the composer’s name.

The movements are titled ‘Hatchling’ (or as in the heading to the programme note, ‘Hatching’), ‘Working’, ‘Anteater’, ‘Self-impaling’ and ‘Survival’. These occasioned a certain amount of joking between my neighbour at the concert and me; especially the second to last movement title; at my home the ants self-impale in the electric socket over the bench. My neighbour (and reviewing colleague) thought that this was obviously working as a means of pest control. However, the music proved that even ants can be inspiring.

All the players are members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Julia Joyce and Andrew Thomson (violas) and Andrew Joyce and Ken Ichinose (cellos).

The five movements of the sextet were played without a break, and it was not always easy to tell where they changed. The pentatonic opening created a delightful mood, contrasting busyness with a spacious feeling from the first violin especially, displaying the very skilled string writing that characterised the whole work. There was much rhythmic drive and energy; pizzicato and sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge) techniques were utilised. In both first and last movements there were sections of a moto perpetuo character. Other motifs and diversity of rhythms revealed a variety of qualities. The whole was accomplished, enjoyable, expressive, and fun.

At the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky work, my neighbour remarked that it seemed almost orchestral in nature; my reply was that the recording I have is indeed played by a string orchestra (22 players). Nevertheless, it was rewarding to hear Souvenir de Florence played in its original form, though the quality, animation and volume of sound achieved by these players, in the fine acoustics of St. Andrew’s, made it hard to realise at times that we were hearing a sextet and not a string orchestra. It was wonderfully rich and sonorous playing.

The allegro con spirito first movement lived up to its designation, right from its passionate opening. It was both dynamic and exciting, alternating with lush moments played with complete unanimity. There were insistent motifs and rhythms. The slow second movement was, as Donald Armstrong told the audience in his introductory remarks, more Italian in character than were the other movements. Some of the music was enchanting, with gorgeous melodies, and a long, bewitching passage of luscious, grandiose, incisive chords, as in a choral composition; they sent shivers down my spine. The superb cello playing of Andrew Joyce in a solo melody exemplified again what many of us heard on a bigger stage on Friday evening when he played the beautiful cello solo in Brahms’s second piano concerto – and again in a solo passage in Shostakovich’s first symphony.

The third movement is shorter and lighter in tone, but not without energy and vivacity, especially in passages of folk-inspired tunes, and echoes of the previous movement. It ends quietly. The allegro finale should have had us dancing in the aisles, such was the animation and rhythmic vitality of the music. The fullness of tone was always impressive. As the excellent programme note by Julie Coulson ended “The movement concludes in a frenetic, headlong rush that leaves no doubt of Tchaikovsky’s sense of triumph.” In which he was quite justified.

I have hunted in vain for the programme of an early evening concert from those distant, halcyon days when there were many classical concerts in the International Festival of the Arts. The Sextets of Brahms, which were new to me, were played by an ensemble led by Carl Pini, at that time based in Christchurch. What I did discover, though, was that in the 1992 Festival there were, in addition to the New Zealand String Quartet, three string quartets visiting from overseas for the Festival! What a plethora of fine music we had in those Festivals! Concerts were well attended, I recall.

As the programme note stated, the first movement wavers between two tonalities, a feature typical of Brahms – it occurred in the 2nd piano concerto played on Friday, and in a number of his motets and other choral pieces. Soon there is a bold melody from the cello, soon repeated, that reminded me of some of his lovely lieder. This was followed by a violin melody, and wistful interchanges between the instruments. More fine melodies later made the whole a very satisfying movement.

The scherzo second movement produced long, winding passages that had a mysterious quality, apart from the jocular presto trio section, which was more like a gipsy dance, with much pizzicato backing it. The slow movement again did not quickly reveal its tonal home. Again, pizzicato ornamented the melodies, lessening the solemnity somewhat. The tempo and spirit livened up for a time, before lapsing back into pensive mood, with its undulating phrases and rhythms.

The finale restored life, colour and sparkle. Once more, there were dynamic solo passages for the cello. Comparisons are unfair, but… compared with Tchaikovsky, Brahms shows plenty of inventiveness, in a less exuberant style; the exciting ending perhaps gave the lie to that remark.

It was marvellous to hear these works from outside the standard chamber music repertoire. The three substantial works brought out uniformly excellent playing from the ensemble. The concert was being recorded by Radio New Zealand Concert, so we may look forward to hearing it again, via radio.


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