Schubert Concert at St.Andrews promises a weekend’s abundance

Concert One “Cornucopia”

Arpeggione Sonata in A Minor D.821
(for double bass and piano)
Oleksandr Guchenko (double-bass) / Kirsten Robertson (piano)

Octet in F Major D.803
(for strings, clarinet, bassoon and horn)
Yuka Eguchi, Anna van der Zee (violins) / Belinda Veitch (viola) / Ken Ichinose (‘cello) / Oleksandr Guchenko (double-bass) / Rachel Vernon (clarinet) / Leni Mäckle (bassoon) / Heather Thompson (horn)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Friday 3rd June, 2016

This was the first of what promised to be a delightful and rewarding “Schubertiade” of concerts featuring various solo artists and ensembles. The title “Cornucopia” possibly referred to the variety of instruments used throughout the evening; or else, to the range and scope of the composer’s writing for these instrumental combinations. Whatever the case, the results suited the “abundant supply of good things” description suggested by the word, regarding both the amount of interest generated by these combinations, and the quality of the music coming from its composer.

This concert began with something of a performance-rarity, that of the exotically-named “Arpeggione” Sonata which Schubert wrote originally for an instrument which had a brief period of popularity in the 1820s. This was a kind of ‘cello, played with a bow, but with a fretted fingerboard, just like a guitar. What possessed the maker to produce such an instrument is anybody’s guess, as it never really “caught on” among musicians.

Schubert’s work, in fact, was the only piece of any great significance written for the instrument. And, as if to underline this “poignancy of neglect”, the sonata was one of those works by Schubert which wasn’t published for many years after the composer’s death, by which time the arpeggione had all but disappeared. Today, the sonata is played most often on the viola or ‘cello, which made the prospect of hearing the work this evening on the double-bass an exciting and unusual prospect.

I confess to some surprise at what we were getting, as I would have thought the ‘cello more in keeping with the original instrument’s tonal qualities – and on the one recording I have of the piece, there’s a ‘cello (which had already disposed me more favourably towards that instrument in this work). However, I was, as the saying goes, keeping an open mind (and ears, of course), as we waited for the instrumentalists to take the stage and begin.

Our double-bass player was Oleksandr Gunchenko, a native of Kiev, whose early music training culminated in a professional orchestral appointment in Russia at the age of nineteen, emigrating to New Zealand in 1999 to play in the Christchurch Symphony, and then joining the NZSO in 2007. He was partnered in the Sonata by Christchurch-born pianist Kirsten Robertson, a graduate of Canterbury University and an ex-pupil of Diedre Irons, at present the NZSO’s principal keyboard player.

Used as I was to the ‘cello’s register, the first few notes of the double-bass line were a surprise, and took some getting used to – but what immediately took over from this was an impression of the performance’s fluency and musicality of tone, of phrasing and of give-and-take between the instruments. Apart from the occasional strained note in the double-bass’s highest registers the playing of both Guchenko and Robertson was impeccable, the pianist ever-mindful of her partner’s mellow-voiced instrument in helping to maintain the balance of the music’s sound-world.

The work’s middle movement gave ample opportunity for expression from both instruments, the piano beginning the hymn-like theme, then handing over to the double-bass, whose varied and characterful playing brought out the music’s sombre qualities with the help of some near rock-bottom notes! After this, the finale lifted the sombre mood with flowing, flavoursome sequences both in minor and major keys (the composer occasionally in “Hungarian Melody” mode). A particular delight was a sequence featuring pizzicati from the double-bass against the piano’s decorative statements,and the deftly-played lead-back to the flowing, dance-like passages, the music’s gentle major-key closure wrought by a mellow-sounding pizzicato chord – all very delicious.

The encore, a setting of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, seemed at first to undo some of the beautiful work the players had done earlier – at first I found the piano too loud, the tones obscuring the double bass’s lines, which from my vantage point in the auditorium seemed to have little or no “carrying power” played in such a deep register. Things improved in that respect when the players repeated the verse with the bass up an octave higher – though more precarious as regards intonation, the balance between the instruments was more pleasing, and the string instrument seemed to find its singing voice, to our great delight and enhanced pleasure.

The concert’s second half presented us with a completely different sound-world, being Schubert’s Octet, for strings, clarinet, bassoon and horn. As with a couple of Schubert’s other works and Beethoven’s Septet, the Octet quotes a theme from an existing work by the composer, albeit a not very well-known duet from an early opera Die Freunde von Salamanka. I certainly didn’t experience any surprising and/or delightful “I know that!” reactions of the sort afforded by the “Trout” Quintet and the “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet, or Beethoven’s cheeky reminiscence in his Septet of a movement taken from his PIano Sonata Op.49 No.2.

All the musicians in the performance were either permanent or casual players with the NZSO, which accounted for the sheer technical aplomb of the music-making – this being the starting-point, the group mightily impressed with its teamwork and characterful individuality at all points. The composer certainly gives all the instruments the chance to shine, and these chances were taken most excitingly by each of the players – horn player Heather Thompson described the experience of playing the work as “climbing Mt.Everest”, which seemed to me as good a way as any of characterizing both the effort and the achievement of realizing the music in performance.

We got a beautiful, sonorous opening chord from the ensemble, the kind of sound that straightaway gives rise to unaccountable but luxuriant feelings of well-being – obviously a great beginning to the enterprise! Strings and winds played off against one another tellingly throughout, creating stores of energy and tightening tensions which the allegro then released in varied ways via exuberant ensemble playing and colourful solo lines. The music’s course was clearly-defined at all times, the essential character of the contrasting sequences of exposition and development brought out by the playing. I particularly enjoyed the adroitness of the interplay between the strings as well as the golden tones of the horn, the latter enabling a beautifully nostalgic ending to the movement after the joyously eruptive fanfares had sounded their “conclusive” bits!

The clarinet-led opening of the second movement Adagio was a heavenly sequence, continuing the pleasure with the first violin in duet, along with beautiful coloristic touches from horn and bassoon. Always the ensemble remained alive to the music’s expressive possibilities, “leaning into” the impulses of emotion which accompanied different sequences of the music, such as a splendid ceremonial-like statement from the horn, mid-movement underlined by the lower strings, and a lovely viola-supported flourish from the violin leading back to the reprise of the opening. There were, in fact, too many gorgeous solos to enumerate, each of them contributing as much to a sense of teamwork as to individual moments. And both the fateful-sounding accompaniments which towards the movement’s end pounded menacingly beneath the music’s surfaces, and the bleak, almost bone-bare moments soon afterwards were given their all-important weight as a reminder of all the things of heaven and earth undreamt in our philosophy…..

The ensemble took the Scherzo movement at a great lick, most excitingly exploring the music’s dynamic range to great effect, and achieving a whimsical contrast with the lyrical, long-breathed Trio. As much a different world was the following Andante, a “theme-and-variations” movement with some delicious moments, a lovely skipping sequence for clarinet and strings, a self-satisfied, semi-pompous sequence for horn, followed by a skipping, carefree ‘cello solo, and a swirling, minor-key variant  with strings supporting the winds. Following this was a sweet-voiced strings-and-clarinet episode whose execution was simply to die for, and then, like some kind of wind-up clockwork conglomeration, a delicious dovetailing of rhythmic patterning, allowed to run down in a lovely, child-like “is it finishing?” kind of way.

Not content with merely a Scherzo, the composer had recourse to a Menuetto and Trio to boot, the music seeming akin to a prayer, one delivered with great poise and steadfastness, the clarinet contributing a lovely counter-theme to the dance-steps, with the horn adding a sonorous variant. An extremely “gemütlich” Trio completed a sense of relaxation, or, perhaps escapism, which the opening of the finale proceeded to demolish with frightening purpose and a sense of desolation – perhaps a premonition of death? An “are you ready?” gesture, and we were suddenly off on a gloriously garrulous jog-trot, one in which good humour prevailed right through almost to the piece’s end. There was a marvellous passage mid-movement in which fugal lines tightened around and about the trajectories, maintaining the tensions until the release-point of the main theme’s reprise, which all of the players almost physically threw themselves into – most exhilarating!

But then! – after a number of energetic, but elongated lead-ins to a long-awaited coda, we were instead suddenly confronted with darkness once again, agitated tremolandi on lower strings and a whimpering, frightened violin pleading with “I told you so” winds. Fortunately it was nothing more than a cloud crossing the sunshine’s path – and the players picked up the strands and held them tightly, urging the music quickly to its conclusion, frightening to experience, but marvellous to come through! What a piece and what a performance! And what a beginning to a whole weekend of the composer’s music!

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