Temples on the heights and simple dwellings – Ludwig Treviranus at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music presents:

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Grand Variations and Fugue for Piano, Op.35 “Eroica”
EDVARD GRIEG – Lyric Pieces Op.54
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”

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

Sunday 26th June 2016

For three-quarters of his recent Wellington Chamber Music St.Andrew’s piano recital, Ludwig Treviranus bestrode the performing space like a young colossus. It seemed the young man could put hardly a finger, gesture or word wrong, such was the pleasure given by both his playing and his speaking to the audience. I’m aware that there are people who don’t ever want to listen to anybody speak at concerts, but nobody present could have seriously objected to listening to someone with such a charming and enviable gift for natural, spontaneous-sounding communication.

Treviranus spoke clearly and entertainingly about each of the items he was going to present to us, putting the music in the context of what was happening for its composer, after which he delivered vivid and characterful performances of the pieces in question. And though his rendition of the programme’s final work, Beethoven’s titanic Op.57 Sonata, the Appassionata, didn’t quite display the consistency of execution enjoyed by the other pieces on the programme, it was nevertheless performed with much the same whole-heartedness and engagement with the music.

Beginning the program was an earlier Beethoven work, though one hardly less epic in its way than the Appassionata. This was the piece which came to be known as the Eroica Variations, due to its theme’s subsequent reappearance in the finale of the composer’s eponymous Symphony No.3 (the Eroica), which Beethoven completed in 1804, two years after the “theme and variations” piano work. There are fifteen variations and a fugue, and , as with the symphony’s finale, the first few variations focus on the bass-line, gradually adding fragments in each succeeding variation until the “theme proper” grandly comes into being – a most exciting and satisfying process to listen to.

Treviranus took us through this process of fruition with tremendous élan and vivid detailing, at once galvanizing our sensibilities with an arresting opening chord, then deliciously playing with the bas theme’s opening notes, contrasting their delicacy and reserve with his forthright response to Beethoven’s three “call-to-arms” notes in the melody’s second half. We were thus straightaway ignited, energized, charmed and exhilarated by the music in the pianist’s hands in a way that focused our listening for what was to follow.

The Variations then took the stage, each with its own singular character, Treviranus bringing out the detail as vividly as the whole – my notes contained responses such as “I like his strut!”, “beautiful liquidity”, militaristic jog-trotting”, “amazing hammering of the bass chords”, “a murmuring, almost Schubertian left-hand”, “poised and ritualistic” ….and so on. It was like a fantastic carnival procession of different, but equally purposeful presentations.

The complex “maggiore” finale sounded very modern in places in Treviranus’s hands. The music presented us with what seemed like incredible transports of delight on the composer’s part – Beethoven speaking with the “Spirit” – before the fugue tripped its way into the picture, voices dovetailing with both charm and quirkiness. I like the pianist’s enjoyment of pianistic sonorities, conjuring up sounds that the composer may well have himself imagined, far in excess of the limited range and dynamism of the instruments he would have heard before his hearing became impaired.

Last year Treviranus gave a recital which included pieces by Austrian-born Paul Schramm, and did so here again, with a different set of works this time round. Refugees from Nazi oppression, Schramm and his Dutch wife Diny settled in New Zealand in the late 1930s, but were treated with suspicion by the New Zealand Government during the war years. Leaving his wife and son in New Zealand after the war Schramm went to Australia to reactivate his career as a piano virtuoso. However, the privations of the war years had taken their toll, and his success was short-lived. He eventually gave up music as a career and rather ignominiously became a door-to-door salesman. He never returned to New Zealand and died in Brisbane in 1953.

As if to help redress the balance of wrongs a little, Treviranus had recently resurrected some of Schramm’s compositional output for piano – most of which is still in manuscript in the Alexander Turnbull Library’s music collection. This new offering was presumably put together as a kind of suite by the composer with the somewhat disturbing title Mania. They’re rather Bartokian-sounding pieces, with hints of other composers thrown in, psychological in effect, rather than pictorial, and in the case of the final piece, oppressive and gloomy.

First up was a piece with the title Savage March, music which reminded me by turns of Gershwin and Percy Grainger – Treviranus’s playing generated real swagger and energising momentum, bringing out the angularities of a 7/4-like section and a cataclysmic csacading sequence at the end. The second piece, Gaiety, seemed ironic as a title, as the music suggested a kind of “mouse-in-a-wheel” claustrophobia, though relieved by a groovier middle section.

Two diametrically opposed opposites followed: Hilarity presented a dancing, if dogged kind of humour, with a three-note chant repeated somewhat artlessly at the end, while the black opening chords of Defeat came as a terrific shock, its grim and oppressive trajectories reminiscent of Musorgsky’s “Bydlo”. The music’s loneliness and despair was relieved only by occasional pinpricks of light, notes from a toybox kind of tune sounded as if part of a dream relieving sorrow. But it was to no avail, as the bleakness loomed up spectre-like once more, dragging the music towards a kind of oblivion.

Respite from such privations came for us with the interval, and then with some of Edvard Grieg’s adorable Lyric Pieces, the Op.54 set of six. (Incidentally, the first four of these went on to achieve wider fame when orchestrated as the Lyric Suite.) The composer said he wanted with these pieces to create “simple dwellings in which people might feel happy” – he certainly would have been charmed with Ludwig Treviranus’s playing, which caught whole worlds of flavoursome atmosphere, incident and feeling.

Beginning with the Shepherd Boy, the pianist realised the music’s gentle, solitary melancholy from the beginning, though I would have liked him to have given more air and space to those gently cascading triplet runs whose impulses adroitly modulate the music upwards and “tell” so poignantly…but this was otherwise a beautiful and thoughtful performance. The other pieces were unalloyed delight – Treviranus quite deliciously orchestrated the Ganger (March), the forward movement so easeful and redolent of its surroundings, allowing plenty of both airy textures and deeper resonances.

As for his playing of the very first note of the Nocturne, his touch proclaimed the presence of a poet at the piano, while his rumbustious approach to the March of the Dwarves forcefully brought out the piece’s “Mountain King” grotesqueries. Two lesser-known pieces remained, the Scherzo glinting with magical, elfin qualities, while the simple, but richly evocative Ringing Bells seemed to anticipate Arvo Pärt’s tintinabulations in a similarly bracing, out-of doors way. In all, I thought it a most treasurable performance which gave the music its proper stature.

And so we were brought to the granite-like entranceway of Beethoven’s imposing Op.57. Treviranus “squared up” to the opening measures with impressive gravitas, conjuring up the “elemental” nature of the sounds with great conviction. The second subject, a cleverly inverted version of the opening, was here kept on the same kind of trajectory, allowing for little false relaxation, and keeping the overall purpose in view. I did think some of the pianist’s responses to the music’s agitations more febrile than elemental, as if at times the fingers ran ahead of the notes (even losing the line momentarily during the development, but getting the argument back on the rails with real determination!)……it was as if he felt the need to “push” the music in places rather than trusting in and going with the piece’s own inner momentum.

After wrestling titanically with the first movement’s combatative aspects, Treviranus took us into the relative tranquility of the theme-and-variations second movement, which, apart from an anxious moment or two from the pianist’s fingers, flowed inexorably towards the threshold of the maelstrom to follow. The finale’s incredible swirling aspect was vividly engaged, the playing leading us square-shouldered through the flailing agitations and brooding intensities which by turns took the music over. Though a flourish was dropped through misdirection at one point, other sequences were splendidly realised – for instance, the “stamping” passages preceeding the recapitulation thrilled with their power, the music not rushed but kept steady and inexorable, allowing those cosmic impulses to speak with their own inherent force.

To my great delight, Treviranus included the movement’s second-half repeat this time round (I heard him about a year ago play the work without it). I thought a bit more right-hand assertiveness was needed from the pianist in sounding the alarm before plunging the music afresh into the development’s black-browed tumult – but still, this gesture most satisfyingly pushed out the music’s vistas, past any residual concert-hall confines that might have hung grimly onto the proceedings up to this point. From here, the performance moved into the realms of classical tragedy, the arpeggiated recitative passages charged with foreboding, the rhythms gathering power and weight with uncompromising focus, and the coda positively juggernaut-like in its relentless physicality. It was playing that risked everything and delivered for all of us a cathartic sense of coming through with the ringing out of those final, defiant chords.

Typically, the pianist then did two things which perfectly expressed both his and our somewhat rung-out state amid those magnificent resonant ruins of the music’s dissolution – he first of all announced that he was “ready for a beer, now!”, and then sat down to help us return to our lives by playing for us a beautifully expressed encore (straight after the Appassionata? – was the fellow mad?)…..this was another of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, one called Summer Evening, which gently brought our sensibilities back from wherever they’d been flung in the cosmos, so that we could all go back to our “simple dwellings” once again and feel happy.

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