Quintessence on show via youth and experience at Michael Fowler Centre

Chamber Music New Zealand presents

String Quintets by Mozart and Brahms
(with Salina Fisher (b.1993) – Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne)

The Pettman Players
The New Zealand String Quartet
James Dunham (viola)

Concert One: MOZART – String Quintets: No.3 in C Major K.515 / No.6 in E-flat Major K.614
The Pettman Players:
Shauno Isomura, Benedict Lim (violins), Julie Park, Caroline Norman (violas), Martin Roberts (‘cello)

Concert Two:
MOZART – String Quintet No 5 in D Major K.593 / BRAHMS – String Quintet No.1 in F Major Op.88 (“Spring”)

Concert Three:
MOZART – String Quintet No.4 in G Minor K.516 / SALINA FISHER – String Quartet Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne / BRAHMS – String Quintet No.2 in G Major Op.111

The New Zealand String Quartet:
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)
with James Dunham (viola)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th September, 2016
(Concerts 1 and 3 reviewed below)

What a lovely idea,  arranging a day of performances of quintets for strings, and then giving the arrangement the name “quintessence” – and I must confess to not previously knowing the origin of the term in classical and medieval philosophy, of the “fifth” element or essence, a substance said to comprise the makeup of the celestial bodies, no less! In relation to Chamber Music New Zealand’s event, Quintessence was having both the New Zealand String Quartet join forces with the eminent American violist, James Dunham in concert, as well as a talented youth ensemble, The Pettman Players, whose members were associated either currently or formerly with the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music, an organisation based both in Auckland and in Christchurch.

Over the course of  a single day, Wellington concertgoers were able to hear in the morning the Pettmans in two of Mozart’s String Quintets (No.3 in C Major K.515, and No.6 in E-flat Major K.614), and then luxuriate in both an afternoon and an evening concert given by the New Zealand String Quartet with guest violist James Dunham. Each of these latter concerts featured a Mozart Quintet (No.5 in D Major K.593 in the afternoon, and No.4 in G Minor K.516 in the evening) along with a String Quintet by Brahms (No.1 in F Major Op.88 “Spring” in the afternoon, and No.2 in G Major Op.111, in the evening). As well, the evening concert contained a Chamber Music New Zealand commissioned work by local composer Salina Fisher, Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne.

I wasn’t able to attend all three concerts, but I managed to get to the first and third of them, relishing the opportunity to enjoy (and nonchalantly compare) the playing of two different ensembles.  I was, naturally enough, prepared to make allowances for the youthful aspect of the Players, as my understanding was that the musicians would all currently be students at the Pettman Academy, either in Christchurch or in Auckland. While the programme notes tell us that the ensemble consisted of both present and past members of the academy, we weren’t told who was specifically who in that respect. No matter, as the playing of the group members was of such a uniformly high standard it wasn’t really relevant as to who was up to which stage in his or her studies – this was music-making of a remarkably accomplished level as regards both individual and ensemble skills, these players able to realise the beauties and intricacies of the music with great aplomb and sensitivity.

The group opened their concert with the C Major Quintet K.515, one of the grandest of Mozart’s chamber works, and beginning with an extended dialogue between violin and ‘cello, the exchanges fluent and focused. Both players had finely-spun tonal qualities, the first violin, Shauno Isamura, able to beautifully “inflect” his line even at speed, the figurations handled with a deftness whose detailing seemed rich and full. As for the cellist, Martin Roberts, his responses to his leader were at once whole-hearted and finely graded to match the volinist’s declamations. Throughout, the teamwork of the ensemble was exemplary, the violas’ passages in thirds having a rich, velvety sound, the players (Julie Park and Caroline Norman) taking great care with one another’s sound-worlds so as to make their dovetailings coherent.

Though a long work, the C Major Quintet’s sequences seemed to fly by under these players’ fingers – I thought their corporate command of nuance and phrasing, especially so in the transition passages which so often depend on split-second timing, was astonishingly good. The Minuet engaged us from the start with its characterful sequences, a rising figure dominating the opening measures, while a Trio diverted our sensibilities with a leap of a seventh and a chromatic swerve – the players gave the chromatic figure plenty of “misterioso” by way of contrast with the physicality elsewhere. A hymn-like Andante featured heartfelt exchanges between the first violin and the first viola, everything distinctively and strongly focused, every note and associated phrase given its due. Then, the finale’s high spirits rounded the work off in a suitably celebratory fashion, the players relishing the occasional accents and beautifully colouring the moments of modulatory exploration before bringing it all to a joyous conclusion.

I knew the E-flat Major Quintet well, as it was a work featured on my very first recording of these pieces. To my intense pleasure these players took a no-holds-barred approach to the music, the two violas bringing out the hunting-horn character of the opening with terrific elan, then richly and excitingly interacting with the ‘cello through both energetic and more subtly-nuanced passages. The playing certainly brought out the music’s orchestral quality, no more so than at the movement’s end where the violins add their fanfares to the galloping rhythms of the lower strings – most exhilarating!

The Andante featured some lovely work by the pair of violins in tandem, a rare and brief moment of not-quite-matching intonation at the beginning of one of the melody’s variants apart – it detracted not a whit from the sense of easeful communion between the players, and the beauties of their shared phrasings. Again in the Minuet there were lovely cascading thirds from the “violin duo” (second violinist Benedict Lim matching his leader all the way in refinement and in energy) for us to relish, and a sense of the players’ delight in sweeping the dance steps along during the Trio. The finale’s Haydn-ish bustle carried everything before it in these players’ hands, Mozart’s fugal writing engendering a real sense of fun and freedom, the lines brilliantly nuanced by the players and brought together at the end with tremendous verve. What a tribute to Edith Salzmann, the artistic Director of the Pettman Academy, to have fostered and encouraged such talent as we witnessed here with these young players!

Back again to the MFC in the evening, this time for a more varied programme of Mozart and Brahms with the New Zealand String Quartet and violist James Dunham, and a newly-commissioned work for string quartet from New Zealand composer Selina Fisher. A measure of the quality of the Pettman Academy Group’s playing earlier in the day was that we weren’t made to feeli n the evening that “here, at last, was the real thing” with these adult performers – it was, instead, a different kind of musical experience, the players of the NZSQ reflecting their own by now familiar performing ethos of one of the country’s finest music ensembles.

Beginning with Mozart’s G Minor Quintet K.516, the music immediately took on a dark, theatrical “Don Giovanni-like” aspect, heightened by the “layered” sonorities of firstly three instruments, then including two more, making for a dramatic “burgeoning” of the tones and textures. I thought violist James Dunham’s playing most interesting, his tones more assertive than what I’ve been accustomed to with Gillian Ansell’s playing, his playing “tighter” and for me far less easeful. The music here certainly lent itself to dark, terse statements of intent throughout, concluding with some heartfelt downward sighs colouring the mood of the coda.

Again, with the Menuetto,  the mood remained terse and sombre, wonderfully downwardly spiralling runs meeting great sforzandi – dramatic stuff! The players relaxed into the trio, the two violas enjoying a moment of concerted lyricism, the surrounding ambiences easeful and grateful for some respite! Mozart anticipates Beethoven in the Adagio’s opening, music of such a rarefied state, almost above human emotion – the players made just as much of the movement’s contrasting sequences, a running accompaniment ushering in a descending major-key figure. And then there was the finale’s beginning, a heavy-footed trudge through stricken cadences, the two violins bearing the expressive burden , and keeping us guessing as to outcomes, before dancing into the sunniness of G major. We delighted in the players’ teamwork throughout the contrasting episodes, the hints of gypsy-like music adding touches of temperament to the Elysian happiness of it all.

Salina Fisher’s newly-commissioned work for Chamber Music New Zealand was then given by the NZSQ – this was an exploration by the composer of the similarities between the traditional Maori instrument the pūtōrino (similar to a trumpet or a flute in its function) and string instruments, particularly in its ability to equate with the human voice in terms of pitch, vocal timbres and different registers.  The instrument itself can produce deep mournful voices , male in character, and the more female, lighter, more erie and agile voice – as well, a more breathy sound can be produced by blowing across the instrument’s opening. Salina Fisher’s work was an exploration of these effects, inspired by the work of the pūtōrino’s foremost present exponent, Rob Thorne, who’s taken up the mantle of guardian of this taonga from legendary figures of the past such as Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns.

Quintessence ended with a work by Brahms, a revelation to me! – my experiences of these works by Brahms haven’t been altogether positive in the past, to the effect that I was disappointed that this series of Quintets didn’t include all six works by Mozart and have done with it! Well, I must have either been listening to the wrong recordings, or been in a peculiar frame of mind when encountering these works in the past, and specifically this G Major Quintet. The NZSQ with their visiting colleague James Dunham made the work such a life-enhancing experience for me, I listened open-mouthed right through the work and forgot to take any notes on the performance!

Thinking about how I had regarded this music on previous (and long-distant) hearings, I fished up from my memory unflattering terms like “opaque”, “weighty”, “academic”, and “self-consciously contrapuntal”. As I listened to the playing, those epithets dropped away, one by one, like scales falling from my eyes so that for the first time I could clearly see.  Right from the joyous opening, in which I could hear bells pealing and activating the surrounding ambiences (not unlike the beginning of Schumann’s great “Rhenish” Symphony) I was transfixed on several counts, by the beauty of the opening ‘cello solo and the duetting violas making their response, by the rapt sequences in the music’s development, and the reawakening of energies ,and the light and shade of the different levels of intensity right up to the music’s coda (so reminiscent of the Second Piano Concerto). The Adagio began with deep, melancholic footsteps, but varied its gait throughout between introspection and full-blooded feeling, while the mischievous Scherzo, marked Un poco Allegretto, gave one the impression of the composer chuckling to himself over the music’s enigmatic textures.

The finale certainly gave the impression of “going somewhere”, at times sounding a bit like a mystery adventure (again I thought there were parallels with the Second Piano Concerto),  with quasi-Hungarian impulses in its gait and Viennese café gestures in its mood! Hugo Wolf once wrote that “Brahms can’t exult!”, but he too may have heard performances which didn’t do the music sufficient justice as to its character and general attitude – I thought the players built up throughout the movement a terrific sense of energy, dashing and vibrant in its abandonment! It was music-making which carried all before it and throughout the final bars most appropriately brought out the joyousness of the work  – a case, as far as I was concerned, of a composer certainly having the last laugh, one which I couldn’t begrudge him in the face of such resplendent writing!

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