Galvanic lunch hour with the Rangapu Duo at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
The Rangapu Duo – Liam Wooding and Noelle Dannenbring

LISZT – Funérailles (from Harmonies poétiques et Religieuses)
CHOPIN – Ballade in F Minor Op.52
SCHUBERT – Fantasie in F Minor D.940
DAVID GRIFFITHS – Rumba (from “Three Coquettes”)

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

Wednesday, 26th October, 2016

The names of both performers in this lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s were new to me, each of them being Hamilton-based musicians, though I ought to have remembered that Liam Wooding was a prizewinner at Christchurch in 2015 at the National Concerto Competition. His duo partner, Noelle Dannenbring, for her part won the University of Waikato Concerto Competition earlier this year. Currently, both are studying at the University under the tutelage of Katherine Austin, Wooding having previously completed a course of study at Auckland with Rae de Lisle.

Knowing/remembering none of this, I was thus unencumbered by any great weight of expectation regarding either repertoire or its performance, when approaching this concert. So, it was, therefore, an exhilarating experience to find myself thrilled and delighted, firstly by the programme, and then by its delivery. Each pianist contributed a solo item to the programme, the pair then combining forces as a duo, where their playing proved just as richly compelling.

First up was Liam Wooding with a work by Franz Liszt, called Funérailles, one of a set of pieces named Harmonies poétiques et Religieuses. Scarcely known as an entirety, only two of the ten pieces, Funérailles, and the grandly-named Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in solitude) are regularly played – though they have claims to be the finest of the set of pieces, each of the ten has its own particular kind of gravitas which works best when heard in the context of the whole.

Funérailles, as with the Bénédiction, readily generates its own expressive qualities as a stand-alone piece; and Liam Wooding’s astonishing performance brought out all of the music’s strength, power and poetry. The proximity of Chopin’s death to the time of the piece’s completion (October 1849) has led to an assumption that the music enshrines some kind of tribute by Liszt to his friend and contemporary – but the former’s focus was firmly on his native land, Hungary, and the 1848 patriotic uprising against the occupying Hapsburgs, which was brutally crushed, with the Prime Minister and a number of Hungarian generals executed by the Austrians.

Liam Wooding’s playing most appropriately “took no prisoners”, plunging into the opening bass sonorities with monumental force, bringing out the piece’s “chromatic ghoulishness” by way of characterising a mounting sense of terror, despair and hopelessness, here reaching a point where the senses were almost overwhelmed, before breaking off and invoking a kind of funeral-like processional – Wooding’s visionary interpretation readily traversed those realms between private sorrow and public grief, casting a great feeling of solace over the piece’s soundscape, and varying the emphases as the music modulated from key to key, here grieving, and there paying homage to bravery and steadfastness.

And what a tremendous effect the pianist made with those infamous left-hand octaves! – obviously inspired by Chopin’s renowned “hooves of the Polish Cavalry” sequences in his Op.53 A-flat Polonaise, Liszt extended the idea beneath vain-glorious fanfares in the right hand, creating a kind of “freedom – or death” aura about the sounds, reinforced by the sudden breaking -off of the passage and its descent into a reprise of the funeral march. Wooding most movingly characterised this section as a dissolution into a more private and personal tragedy, one which was then mocked and savagely scattered by the brief return of the “octave passage”, concluding bleakly with a number of hollow, single-note utterances.

After such ravages, Noelle Dannenbring’s beautifully-floated awakening of the opening of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade seemed to gently open the shutters and allow our recently-assailed vistas some sunshine and gentle breezes. Less pictorial, more abstract than Liszt’s music, Chopin’s evocations here pursued a subtler, though no less telling course, mapped out by the pianist with refreshing directness, her playing giving the somewhat obsessive main theme plenty of “through-line”, and melding the subsidiary ideas, such as the contrasting chordal sequences, unselfconsciously into the flow. She made the most of certain moments, such as the return to the opening idea midway, capped off by a gentle, almost Lisztian melismatic flurry, just before the main theme’s “canonic” treatment. Towards the piece’s end Dannenbring’s playing seemed less concerned with “virtuoso roar” than clarity and proportion, proclaiming the composer’s regard for the music of Bach and Mozart.

Having demonstrated their individual skills, the pair returned as their newly-formed musical partnership, the “Rangapu Duo”, ready to present for us one of the undoubted masterpieces of four-handed piano literature, Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. Earlier this year, Wellington pianists Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe had, during a St.Andrews concert in July, given us an even later, if less extended Schubert duet, the Grande Rondeau D.951, a work utterly charming and filled with beautiful resignation, as opposed to the forlorn anxieties and desperate energies of the Fantasie.

I loved the Rangapu Duo’s performance of this work, which, it seemed to me, “sang in its chains like the sea”, to paraphrase the words of poet Dylan Thomas. And though the players didn’t hold back from vehement expression at certain points of the discourse, the music never descended into the realms of near-dissolution, as does the slow movement of the composer’s A Major Piano Sonata D.959, which hints at anarchy and madness – Dannenbring and Wooding did the Fantasie no such violence, but made sure the music’s “fate-like feeling of necessity” was conveyed to us with all the expressive force they could muster.

We certainly needed a kind of “pick-me-up” to finish the concert, and the duo obliged in great style with New Zealand composer David Griffiths’ jolly Rumba, a piece from a work called Three Coquettes, written in 2012. Something of a polymath, David Griffiths is a performer and teacher as well as a composer – he’s composed mainly for the voice, though there’s a group of piano compositions which suggest he knows his way around that instrument pretty well – Rumba generates exactly what its title might suggest, driving rhythms, high energies and colourful contrasts. Perhaps we might hear the Rangapu Duo in Wellington again, sometime, playing the whole of David Griffiths’ “Coquettes” suite for our further pleasure!

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