Revelatory chamber music experiences from London Conchord Ensemble

London Conchord Ensemble
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Daniel Rowland – violin, Bartholemew LaFollette – cello, Daniel Pailthorpe – flute, Emily Pailthorpe – oboe, Maximiliano Martin – clarinet, Andrea de Flammineis – bassoon, Nicholas North – horn, Julian Milford – piano

Mozart: Quintet in E flat for piano and winds, K 452
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No I in E, Op 9 (arr. Webern for violin, flute, clarinet, cello and piano)
Poulenc: Sextet for piano and wind quintet, Op 100
Debussy: La mer (arr. Beamish for piano trio)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 13 October, 7:30 pm

An overseas ensemble of eight distinguished players is a rare event for Chamber Music New Zealand, even more so when most are principal players in leading British orchestras, chamber groups or music academies; an ensemble as various in backgrounds and careers as the music they played.

They never all played together, apart from the encore, party pieces: bits of Brahms’s Hungarian dances. Other than at the concerts in the four main centres, the players split up to perform in six provincial cities, mainly in duos or trios, I think, in entirely different programmes.

Mozart; Quintet for piano and winds 
The extraordinarily well-documented life of Mozart includes his own self assessments; the quintet for piano and winds is probably never performed without reference to his letter to his father remarking that it was the best thing he’d written so far. Such things tend to skew one’s judgement. Only it so happened that the first time I heard it, in my mid-twenties, in perfect innocence, I was enchanted; and kept hoping to find other Mozart pieces for the same combination. It was some time later that I discovered the three great wind serenades.

They began in an almost tentative spirit, as if handling a rare manuscript, with kid gloves, the opening chords stated with utmost delicacy, then step by step each takes its discreet role – oboe and clarinet and bassoon, then the horn is given its special place while the piano supports and elaborates. But it’s not about showcasing the individual instruments, for the sort of attention each gave to the preceding player seemed both to emulate and to elaborate each instrument in turn, delicately, with scrupulous care. Each seemed to listen acutely to the shape and rhythm of each other’s playing, then echoing it subtly so as to enhance its magic. Specially enchanting were the phrases where pairs of instruments conversed – oboe and clarinet; horn and bassoon for example.

Schoenberg; Chamber Symphony No 1  
Mozart represented the first Viennese school; Schoenberg, the second. His famous First Chamber Symphony seems to be spoken of as if it’s a major step towards atonalism, but it came only a few years after Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande, before his ‘atonal period’ is said to begin. It’s unashamedly in E major though there are plenty of other tonalities, near and far.

The work is written for single instruments, five strings, two horns, and eight woodwind instruments. Webern’s arrangement of the Chamber Symphony for piano, violin and cello, flute and clarinet, made in 1923, was one of several by the composer himself and his younger acolytes. (The composer had arranged it for piano four hands and for a larger orchestra; Berg arranged it for two pianos, and Webern also made an arrangement for piano and strings).

Violinist Rowland recalled the famous 1913 concert in Vienna (Paris and Stravinsky were not the only heroes of musical riots) where, as well as this chamber symphony, music by Webern, Zemlinsky and Berg was played: a riot broke out during Berg’s songs. At the subsequent trial, Rowland said, the operetta composer Oscar Straus testified that the punch by concert organizer Erhard Buschbeck had been the most harmonious sound of the evening.  The Michael Fowler Centre, however, remained calm.

Yet it’s interesting that the piece has not really taken its place alongside other famous music of the period, like Salome and Elektra, like Mahler’s symphonies, like Debussy’s La mer and Images… (for example, I’ve only got one version on record). For it here and there it presents a rugged, somewhat challenging face. There are tunes, sometimes they quickly distort or are overtaken by conflicting ideas, but often, especially if one is reasonably familiar with it, each hearing brings more of a feeling of familiarity and tunefulness; and this performance enhanced those impressions.

Poulenc: Sextet  
French composers of first half of the twentieth century typically shied away from the trends across the Rhine, none more than Poulenc, especially after the First World War.  His Sextet was composed during the 1930s. It starts with a couple of cheeky, defiant gestures but then set out busily until the music stops as if at the end of the movement. It resumes however with a calm bassoon solo; the piano has a turn, then oboe and then all really come to dominate most of the first movement till the first tempo returns for the last couple of minutes. The second movement, Divertissement, is hardly in the same class at the famous music by Ibert, but it’s recognisably Poulenc, flipping from one tempo to another and played with a delightful Gallic sense of impropriety, and ending as flute and horn lead to a near unresolved suspension.

The last movement returns to Poulenc proper, setting off with screechy woodwinds and staccato horn, piano and winds trading insults.  The final surprise is the sudden killing of the Prestissimo tempo as the bassoon leading the rest through an admonitory calm (Subito très lente, says the score, mixing French and Italian), in an emphatic absence of anything brash or tasteless.

Debussy: La mer
I think there was a particular feeling of scepticism that a richly orchestrated thing like La mer could be reduced to a piano trio and not sound ridiculous, and really disrespectful of Debussy’s laborious work of orchestration, which was not his favourite occupation. My own doubts lasted a full 47 seconds, by which time I was won over in the utmost astonishment.

Only three players, Daniel Rowland – violin, Bartholemew LaFollette – cello and Julian Milford – piano, wrought this miracle. It was the work of English composer Sally Beamish, and though there were moments when I couldn’t help hearing the original version in my head, those lapses were quickly replaced by wonderment at her achievement. While there was no hope of dealing in some way with every note in the full score, the spirit of La mer was almost always there in an inexplicable way, with the very instrumental sounds seeming to emerge as if by magic.

I wondered how she’d tackled it and imagined that the best way would have been to have done it from memory, just checking now and then with the score for the odd harmonic detail. A good deal of the cogency of the performance – probably most of it – had to be due to the sensitivity and skill of the three players who, eux aussi, must simply have had the original sounds embedded in their heads.

The other lesson from this performance was to endorse a feeling I’ve long had that the real test of orchestral music’s substance and worth lies in the experience of it with all the colour removed, leaving it like a black and white photo or a copper engraving. Debussy’s masterpiece, subjected to that test, passes with a triple A rating; and again, it could not have been such an illuminating experience without superb musicians such as these proved to be.


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