NZTrio at St.Andrew’s in Wellington – and homage to Justine Cormack

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concert Series presents:
The NZTrio – Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (‘cello) and Sarah Watkin (piano)

CLAIRE COWAN – Subtle Dances (2013)
PENAFORTE – An Eroica Trio (1998)
SCHUBERT – Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat D.898

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

Sunday, 30th April, 2017

Outside of the brilliant performances of the music, the most stupendous revelation for some at the NZ Trio’s recent Wellington concert would have been the announcement, made at the concert’s end by local chamber music organiser Julie Coulson, that the trio’s violinist Justine Cormack would be leaving the group mid-2017 – of course for people who “keep abreast” of things like this by reading newsletters and the like (a particular failing of mine, I admit!), this wasn’t a surprise, as the Trio’s own newsletter had already published a February press release breaking the news.

So, after fifteen years of performing together, the group will be looking for a new violinist at the end of the current tour and after visiting and playing in China – the remaining players, ‘cellist Ashley Brown and pianist Sarah Watkins are promising us “some surprise guest violinists in the chair” as they cast around for somebody to fill the position on a more permanent basis. Meanwhile Justine Cormack is looking forward to some “space” in her life for the next little while, and, while waiting for whatever “new things” might arise, will be focusing on fulfilling what she has described as a “dream”, that of returning to the South Island to live, in particular to Central Otago, somewhere “close to Wanaka”.

Obviously nothing stays the same forever; and the group is confident that the next period will be “an extremely exciting one”, not the least feature being a re-establishment and continued development of “the legacy that Justine has helped establish”.  Evidence of that legacy as a living entity was in plentiful supply throughout the afternoon’s music-making at St.Andrew’s on this occasion, with Justine Cormack herself remarking how good it felt for her and her colleagues to be back and playing in the venue after so many years’ absence – in fact the last time the Trio had performed there was in 2002, at the very time the group was first established!

One of the hallmarks of the NZTrio’s activities over the years has been its espousal of New Zealand music – and this concert was no exception, featuring a work which had been commissioned by the group in 2013, Subtle Dances by Claire Cowan, and was now being taken on this final tour. Also included in the afternoon’s line-up was music whose roots had sprang up from a different tradition to that of Western classical music, though, thanks to one composer in particular, a genre finding more and more favour in concert halls. This was the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and his work Tangos, featuring two vastly different examples of the form, was performed to great effect, the two dances diametrically opposed in manner, mode and mood, if not in overall effect.

Piazzolla always seems to employ plenty of variety in his music by way of depicting both the essence of the dance-movement trajectories and atmospheres, and the interaction between the dance-partners (at times extremely physical) – I thought the instrumentations dovetailed most deliciously, here sensuous and sultry, the ensuing interactions smokily suggestive. Along the way, the opening Primavera Porteria yielded for a few luscious moments to the Oblivion sequence (one perhaps needs the wit of a Beecham to properly characterise THAT sequence in words!) before the opening energies returned – thrusts and counter-thrusts built upon one another and brought the piece to almost fever-pitch by the very end.

Claire Cowan’s music has always appealed to me – perhaps it’s the “intuitive ” nature of her writing (which she speaks of in a programme note concerning this recent (2013) work, Subtle Dances) that connects so readily – what she conceives is always a “touching on all points” scenario, with impulses that always go somewhere. Described as “three short mood pieces”, the first, eponymously-named “subtle dances” began with deep pizzicati from the ‘cello and furtive impulses from the piano coming together, creating a shadowy, mysterious atmosphere of dark business which showed its hand only when sufficient momentum had established a kind of flywheel trajectory – the cellist knocked his fingerboard for a percussive effect as the vistas lightened and the road opened up, the strings pizzicato-ed, and the piano sang a song of freedom – the dance element swung along with the music, while the violin intoned an insinuating melody, before everything just stopped, allowing the echoes of those incredible rhythmic patternings some resonance-room, like the reverberation of a mighty chord.

The second dance “Be slow and lie low” was cool and dreamy, with a bluesy piano holding lovingly to its introductory notes before declaiming as if reading poetry – the strings rounded off the sentiments with some delicately-wrought harmonies and ambiently-floated sounds, into which world came “Nerve lines”, like something disturbing sleep, ostinato patterns from Sarah Watkins’ nimble fingers mirrored by the strings, both repeated notes and held lines, like nerve-pulsations, almost minimalist in accumulated effect, and occasionally exotically-flavoured, such as the two-note “sighing” motif from the ‘cello. The ebb-and-flow of string-tones here built up to fierce and fraught levels as the piano continued to chime its motifs in the bass, reaching a kind of apogee with a final, long-breathed note. At every stage of this work, I seemed to imagine and catch a kind of tingling quality, with each note, and every gesture having a resonance which continued in the memory long after the piece had run its course.

Where Claire Cowan’s work was interior, subtle and intensely psychological, Raimundo Penaforte’s work for piano trio was “out there” in full-blooded, visceral terms right from the beginning. Called “an Eroica Trio”, the work was intended by its composer to pay a kind of homage to three of his formative musical influences by way of sub-titling each of the movements with a name – “Astor”, the first, paid tribute to Piazzolla, and celebrated the iconic tango composer’s influence with big, physical gestures at the music’s start, set against sultry and romantic violin-and-‘cello sequences which followed, with numerous “cross-references” intended to bind the structures together – a nice idea, but one I thought towards the piece’s end crudely and repeatedly over-applied, as repetition seemed to follow repetition. Though the slow movement “Maurice” (inspired by Maurice Ravel’s “passacaglia” movement from his Piano Trio) began promisingly as a kind of phantom dance from a dark dream, and explored a number of evocative variations on the opening sequence, I again thought the music too lengthy and discursive for its material.

Only the finale seemed not to outstay its welcome, the lively and scampering piano figurations enlivening and setting a-tingling the textures, provoking strong, slashing chords over the scamperings, and even varying the mix with moments of delicacy! But for the most part it was the “wild side” of things which prevailed, establishing connections with “Capiba”, the nickname given to da Foncesca Barbosa, a fellow-Brazilian composer, and his music. The sequences leading up to the movement’s conclusion resembled a riot of physical movement, which got from the NZ Trio the full-blooded response it obviously needed – everybody at full stretch and convulsed with excitement and (speaking for myself!) exhaustion at the end.

Pianist Sarah Watkins introduced the Schubert work to us, quoting the familiar but entirely apposite epithet “smiling through tears” as a helpful characterisation of the composer’s work – though this B-flat Trio is perhaps more lyrical than tragic compared with its companion (No.2 in E-flat D.929). The Trio gave us a well-rounded opening, more ceremonial than big-boned, the gestures large in lyrical expression rather than physicality. The lines were all given full-voice, varying their dynamics when the contours required, everything bright-eyed and alert without being percussive – exuberance tempered by overall resolve and clearly-focused direction.

The musicians allowed the more lyrical episodes plenty of time and space, without sacrificing the kind of intensity that made one want to listen to their every delineation – some of the phrase-ends seemed to pivot for an instant on moments of cosmic stasis, making one hold one’s breath! – and this, cheek-by-jowl with music whose rhythmic trajectories can in places sound like young gods sporting in the Elysian Fields!

I thought the slow movement’s performance simply outstanding, with Ashley Brown’s ‘cello tones inflected so affectingly that one couldn’t imagine the notes better played, and Justine Cormack’s violin phrasings mirroring and further enriching the composer’s “divine utterances”. And Sarah Watkins bringing out of the “Hungarian” touches in the central section’s piano part gave the music a welcome touch of contrast, allowing a more flowing exchange between the instruments, and some exquisitely-wrought modulations – a beautifully-voiced return to the opening, for example, this time with Justine Cormack’s violin leading the way. After this, the scherzo provided even more contrast with its playful nonchalance, though the rhythms were never “square” or rum-ti-tum, but had enough crispness to their attack so that we were always kept on the move.

Schubert’s finales can be a shade garrulous in places if “let go”, but the NZTrio’s sweeping paragraphing of the different episodes carried all before it, allowing plenty of insoucient trotting of the piano figurations beneath the droll string lines, but constantly nudging this and that detail in a constantly engaging way, keeping the urgencies alive but on slow boil, along a kind of kaleidoscopic journey of different impressions – the coda, when it came, exploded almost orchestrally and caught us up in its exuberance in a most satisfying way.

No better finish to a concert and no more appropriate summing-up of fifteen years of a group’s committed and beautifully integrated music-making could, I think, have been devised.

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