Memorable Lower Hutt recital of the familiar and the unknown

Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, violin; Andrew Thomson, viola [1 only]; Julia Joyce, viola [1 & 3], Andrew Joyce, cello; Joan Perarnau Garriga, double bass [1 & 3]; Jian Liu, piano)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Mendelssohn: Piano Sextet in D, Op.110
Shostakovich: Piano Trio in E minor, Op.67
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, D.667 (The Trout)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Tuesday 14 March 2017, 7.30pm

Chamber music at its best.  Splendid performers, enthusiastic, receptive audience, good acoustics, masterworks of the repertoire.  One can’t ask for much more, whether the players are from overseas or are our locals – the latter the case this time, with strings all from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with the added talents of pianist Jian Liu, from the New Zealand School of Music.  However, the concert deserved a larger audience, with a magnificent programme performed by quality players.

I am indebted to Lindis Taylor for notes on the first work; a previous engagement in Wellington that went on longer than expected meant I missed some of the first movement of the Mendelssohn.  This was, perhaps surprisingly, the least familiar work on the programme – not only to me, bur to others to whom I spoke.  It had a subdued, mellow opening, but an air of confidence, with the piano soon in the throes of a seriously accomplished piece.

The double bass contribution was marked, especially its pizzicato.  There were occasional marcato notes from the piano, but the instrument’s role seemed rather too busy for listeners to apprehend much melody.  A conventional crescendo ended the movement, which had been substantial and lively, made so from the good sound in the relatively intimate space of the Little Theatre.  The vigorous and totally committed playing of these performers was notable.

The second movement, adagio, contrasted with the earlier allegro vivace.  It was calm and melodious in places, but not the most interesting of the composer’s writing, yet there was some delicious piano writing in places.  Again, there was much for the piano to do, with muted strings accompanying.

The menuetto was far from a movement of that name in Mozart’s time; as the programme notes stated, Mendelssohn was influenced by Beethoven.  Its agitato even became frisky.  Liu’s playing was beautifully judged.  After this short movement came the longer finale, another allegro vivace, with the piano dominant again.  There was prestidigitation from all players in this bright and breezy movement. More sombre chords happened very briefly; soon we were back to dynamics and dynamism.  It was a movement of great variety.

Rather more familiar was the Shostakovich trio.  The work has a most unusual opening, with the cello playing unaccompanied harmonics, giving a very plaintive effect; then the violin joins in slowly at a much lower pitch, and finally the piano, in the bass.  All are pianissimo, the mood one of deep sadness.  The piano and cello then played, at normal pitch, a solemn theme, the piano in double octaves, to be followed by a violin melody, with the piano playing stark pizzicato.  This was all technically demanding and complex.  An agitated melody ensues; some little phrases  to be found in other of Shostakovich’s chamber music emerge.

The allegro con brio second movement was brisk and brittle.  The following largo was in utter contrast, beginning with slow fortissimo chords on the piano, followed by a soulful solo from the violin, and then another on cello, the piano chords continuing.  Donald Armstrong again had much playing in the lower register; this was sonorous and mellow.

Expert pizzicato from all players introduced the final allegretto.  Then the Jewish melody arrived, followed by many different fragments, all in a state of high tension, repeated from this and the other movements.  This was hard work, but all magnificently realised.  After spiccato from the strings, the opening piano chords from the largo third movement returned, accompanied by high notes on the strings.  Phenomenal playing was exhibited from all three musicians.

After the interval, and the sombre mood of the Shostakovich, the lovely ‘Trout’ quintet of Schubert seemed almost light relief.  What a treat to hear this familiar, gorgeous work!  The intensity these players brought to the music gave it freshness anew.  The composer’s use of the double bass was interesting.  There was brilliance from the piano again; this concert was really a celebration of the piano in chamber music, and Liu’s wonderful playing of it.

In the second movement, andante, the brook becomes limpid.  The more solemn middle section gives the keyboard prominence.  The third movement, scherzo, demonstrated again the lovely tone from all the instruments, whether in rapid playing, as in this movement, or the slower, more resonant previous one.

Andantino to allegretto were the markings for the fourth movement.  Here we had the melody of the song Die Forelle.  It began with strings only, as a mellifluous quartet.  In the first variation, the piano has the tune while the strings accompany, but with lots of variety.  In the next, the situation is reversed.  The third featured the tune played by the double bass, with piano ripples; the others accompanied, but had a few melodies of their own.   Following that was a concerted variation, played with much vigour.  Then the cello had the solo, with variations on the melody; this trout was lively in Andrew Joyce’s hands.  The violin had its turn playing a solo of the song melody, then the cello took it up while the piano played the song’s accompaniment.  (Did Schubert not regard the viola highly enough to give it solo?)

The fifth (allegro giusto) movement contained strong rhythmic statements from all players, and plenty of contrasts.  New sections of the movement illustrated the plethora of ideas and innovations Schubert was able to create.

This was playing of precision and great beauty, making for a memorable concert.


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