Piano and string quartet in unexpectedly contrasting scene

Kathryn Stott (piano) and the New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola and Rolf Gjelsten – cello)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Gillian Whitehead: still, echoing
Dutilleux: Piano Sonata
Dvořák: Piano quintet in A, Op 81

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 8 May, 7:30 pm

A radical change has occurred in programming over the past year or three. Instead of programmes of carefully related music, set in a coherent sequence, either chronological, stylistic or thematic, disjunction and daring contrast have come to be the fashion.

To seek the traditional common theme, one might suggest ‘composers starting with ‘D’’, or that, instead of a chronological sequence starting ancient and ending modern, you turn it around: a living New Zealander to begin and a long-dead Czech to end. Or that the two composers whose piano quintets were played were born a hundred years apart – 1841 and 1941. Leaving the lonely composer of a solo piano piece, who lived to almost one hundred, to create a cryptic connection between Romantic formality and contemporary tonalities.

Old-fashioned double-declutching was called for in the scene shifts.

This was however, a greatly looked-forward-to concert, as I’d heard Stott and her NZSQ friends at the wonderful Nelson chamber music festival in 2015.

Gillian Whitehead’s intriguing, understated piece, evocative of a bleak lagoon in the Chatham Islands, began life as a quintet for piano and winds. I haven’t heard that, but I slowly came to be won over by Whitehead’s enigmatic score, which first violin Helene Pohl suggested we might be free ‘to hear what you could hear’. That wasn’t as arcane or metaphysical as it sounded, for with ears extended and prejudices eliminated, all kinds of impressions, specific or inscrutable, came to mind.

For me, it was enough to experience the sheer, meandering variety of the score, from tremolo strings and subdued piano chords, lovely passages for viola and piano and then viola alone; a peaceful landscape suddenly invaded by tumbling irruptions from the piano. There were some attractive sections that called for two or three instruments, giving hints of something grander beyond that hill or those trees on the Chathams, but which came to nothing. There was a robust passage involving all five which found expression again later, hinting at influences that one suppressed (Bartók is so powerfully present in so much later music). And you could hear birds (what birds?) and small, burbling streams. But its chief delights were just the music.

I’ve long been intrigued by Dutilleux but his piano sonata had eluded me till I picked up John Chen’s recording for Naxos a few years ago. I had come to know several of Dutilleux’s orchestral works over the years and found them elusive, if not challenging, but intriguing and inviting to revisit. I was won over at once: it is of course the first piece from this reticent, self-critical (like Brahms or Dukas) composer, thought publishable. It’s hard to pigeonhole: not atonal, but full of tonal ambiguity nevertheless, but ambiguity that somehow befriends the listener. The opening is arresting at once with its arresting repeated motifs and its marked rhythms, and occasional syncopated moments.

Stott’s playing began in a gentle, friendly spirit, somehow seducing us into accepting and enjoying the less-than-orthodox shapes and harmonies. One of its virtues is its variety of moods, of tempi, of shifts from the insistent to the introverted, heavy chordal passages switching to fluttering pleasure. What were its antecedents? Ravel, but hardly Debussy, rather the Russians like Scriabin or Medtner.

The second movement, labelled ‘Lied’, introduced more definable emotions – touches of sadness, of a near-conventional tune, hints of more extended treatment of ideas, unfulfilled usually.

The title of the third movement, Choral et variations, evoking Franck’s keyboard works like the Prélude choral et fugue or the Prélude, Aria et final, really led me astray, much as I’d have enjoyed the idea of Dutilleux paying respects to his great predecessor. (At Nelson, the five had played Franck’s gorgeous Piano Quintet as well as the solo piano Prélude choral et fugue). This was more strongly rhythmic and the variations were indeed distinct and proved a successful way to create lively interest in the last movement.

For me this sonata has been a real ‘find’ in the piano music of the post-war era, and Kathryn Stott’s truly insightful performance was my first and most insightful live experience of it.

The second half, even though separated by the interval, inhabited a very different world, obviously. I had rather expected the Dvořák quintet to provide a welcome move back to a well-loved composer who wrote music that’s at once easy to love. I’ve always rated it as among my best loved chamber works, so overflowing with warm and opulent melody. But I found myself in a listening space that had been more profoundly affected by Whitehead and Dutilleux that I expected. I surprised myself by wanting music here that was not so different in its rigour and modernity from the aesthetic of our own age.

The performance was gorgeous, with the cello’s opening against the rising triplets from the serene piano, and each instrument, in turn, revealed all the many heart-warming beauties that fill its pages. The viola often, especially at the second movement’s long, breathless, rhapsodic tentativeness; and later, there’s the melody’s curious handling by the cello with the violin accompanying.

Though I have somewhat unidentified impressions of performances that I suspect might have been invested with greater definitiveness or intellectual austerity, and which might have withstood the pre-interval competition, the playing by these fine musicians was pretty flawless and full of vitality and affection; there is no one, ideal kind of performance of this or any work of art, much as some severe critics might have you believe it.

I’d have expected the lively Dumka episode in that movement or the energetic Scherzo itself to have electrified the music and shaken me from my musical period strait-jacket, but that didn’t do it either. But the sparkling finale, intended to fill listeners with joy after the earlier rigours, was simply splendid, energetic, bringing this happiest, rich and least troubled chamber music masterpiece to its conclusion.

So I hardly need to say that, having been so affected by and involved in both works in the first half of the concert, this was a singular experience for me.

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