More power to String Trios – the Aroha Ensemble at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Wellington Chamber Music Concerts presents:
The Aroha Ensemble
Haihong Liu (violin), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (‘cello)

BEETHOVEN – String Trio No.3 in G Major, Op.9 No.1
PENDERECKI – String Trio (1990-91)
MOZART – Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat K.563

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

Sunday, 11th June, 2017

There’s no doubt that the string quartet as a genre has dominated the world of chamber music since the time of Josef Haydn – the repertoire is astonishing in its depth and diversity, and together with the sheer number of ensembles, both historical and contemporary, constitutes almost a world of its own. The effect of this has, I think, tended to downplay the “presence” in the chamber music firmament, of differently constituted groups, and possibly their “status” in the minds of many music-lovers, as being somehow lesser or slighter in content or importance.

Of course there are exceptions which have pressed their claims to greatness as profoundly as most string quartets have – the Piano Trios of Beethoven and the String Quintets of Mozart along with Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet come first and forement to mind. But most String Trios (for example) wouldn’t for many people, I would think,”quicken the blood” at the thought of them being peformed as would be the case with the average string quartet by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc….

Well, if anybody thought, with the present programme put together by the Aroha Ensemble (ironically, all three players are members of the well-known Wellington group, the Aroha Quartet!), that the music offered would somehow be of a lesser quality or importance than a like programme of string quartets, he or she would have been most pleasantly surprised and stimulated by the afternoon’s music-making (I shamefully confess to being covertly one of that number, and am forced here to publicly recant my previously-held elitist and somewhat “superior” attitudes towards string trios!).

All three works on the programme gave the utmost pleasure, thanks of course to the advocacy of the players and the immediacy of the venue’s acoustic, as well as the efforts of the respective composers. I was particularly taken with both of the first-half pieces (those by Beethoven and Penderecki) and thought the programme-order made for a satisfying concert of two halves within a diverse single world of expression.

So, we began with Beethoven, and the first of three String Trios published in 1799. One could immediately imagine why this work in G Major is regarded as the most energetic of the set, due to its magnificent opening – a forceful, sonorous declamation (remarkable for three players!) with quirkily suggestive impulses immediately following, in a way that reminded me of Haydn’s humourful style. The tempo then teasingly nudged rather than plunged forwards, with the individual instrumental voices so characterul and full-bodied in their expositions (trialogues, rather than dialogues!) , able to encompass both the lyricism of the second subject themes and the dancing lines which united the sequences.

Darker-browed mutterings heralded the development which plunged into different harmonic realms, touching upon varied texturings and timbres, before the recapitulation of the opening included for us some surprising “lurches” into hitherto unexplored nooks and crannies, the playing consistently conveying a sense of great and biosterous fun, almost Rossini-like with some of the scampering figurations, building up enough momentum for a rousing finish. By contrast, the Adagio’s gently-throbbing lines established a kind of hpynotic dance, varying between dovetailed detailing and strongly purposeful direction, the players seeming to relish the composer’s occasional harmonic waywardness, capturing enough of the listener’s wonderment to make a rich and satisfying journey.

A fleet-of-finger scherzo emphasised gracefulness rather than physicality, a four-note figure used with much imagination, the product more of whimsy than wilfulness – the players saved their energies for the fast-and-furious finale, which they launched with great elan, but also with impressive dynamic control, so that the textures and tones seemed infinitely pliable, pulled back and allowed to fill out at will. But what terrific physical attack in places! The boisterousness took the form of a village dance at one point complete with drone bass, before reverting to an even more breathless pace – completely exhilarating!

Bearing in mind that some of Beethoven’s music sounded bizarre and unmusical to some nineteenth-century listeners, one could hazard an opinion that parallels could be drawn with the effect of parts of Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki’s String Trio upon some present-day sensibilities, even though the latter work is now over a quarter-of-a-century old! (Actually, my favourite off-the-cuff adverse reaction to Beethoven’s music is, I think, a very belated comment by John Ruskin, who, in 1881, observed that what he heard “sounded like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there a dropped hammer”.)

As my own music-listening capacities were immeasurably changed by a first encounter with Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”, so might Penderecki’s ferociously-charged episodes of confrontation which begin the Trio have similarly stimulated other listeners’ reactions and imaginations. At the outset, each “slashing chord” outburst was followed by expressive solo passages for a solo instrument, a lament-like episode for the viola, its melodic line by turns chromatic and angular, followed by a more capricious and dance-like ‘cello solo, and lastly an effortful, almost claustrophobic outpouring from the violin – superb playing from each instrumentalist!

In their exchanges the instruments varied their textures and timbres almost obsessively, suggesting at once widely-ranging and sharply-focused traversals of feeling and imagination, in places somewhat spectral, while in others imbued with the warm physicality of “tumbling down a hill”. To me the music conveyed a sense of experience hard-earned and painfully worked-through, the string textures adopting all kinds of different-characters, from the warmly-resonant legato-sounding to the dried-out “col legno” dryness.

In places I was reminded of Douglas Lilburn’s reference to Penderecki’s music in the second of the former’s iconic treatises regarding creativity in this country , “A Search for a Language”. Lilburn emphasised the character of the Polish composer’s experiences, shared with numerous contemporaries, in what he called a “crucible of European suffering” by way of remarking on the relationship between language and experience, and about how such experiences ought to be “earned”. While acknowledging this creative uniqueness, what I found thrilling was how the Aroha Ensemble seemed to bridge the gap between creativity and execution and realise their own version of the music’s strength of character with plenty of force and surety – a terrific performance!

There remained, for our utmost delight, the Mozart Divertimento, reckoned by many commentators to be the greatest example of the String Trio genre. Originally programmed as the opening work, the Ensemble thought better of the order, and decided to get the huff, puff and bluster out of the way first, clearing the decks for Mozartean sublimity. As it turned out, I would have coped with the order as originally mooted, thanks to the Ensemble’s ability to take their listeners right into the centre of things in the case of each work, and create enduring stand-alone memories of each creative world.

Mozart opens his work gently, but with the music’s pulse hardly missing a beat as it explodes and resonates with energy – a couple of momentary raw tones simply added to the pulsating excitements of the interactions, though the exposition repeat I thought sounded more settled, the tones not as forced, as if the music had found its stride. A mysterious and exploratory development shed new light on things, the players keeping their focus tight and sharp-edged, and bent on getting back to the expositions – I so enjoyed the ensemble’s dovetailing of the lines in the recapitulation, so very conversational and complementary as to warm listeners’ hearts (mine included!)….

A warm, richly-toned Adagio was gorgeously-phrased, bringing to mind the words “music of heaven”, however fanciful they might seem. Some of the poised sequences of this music made it seem as if creation had stopped to listen to the sounds which were being created, while the more energetic passages exuded a fierce ecstasy at the loveliness of everything.

The urgency of the first Menuetto kept the flow of exchange and the trajectory of experience studded with incident, while the walking-pace of the following theme-and-variations Andante, allowed expressions of both lyricism and strength, inwardness and quasi-operatic outpourings, in a kind of ritual of varying textures.

Another quick and sprightly Menuetto followed, with two Trios, firstly a charming sequence that sported some circus-like touches, and later, a lovely, jauntily striding manner. These different aspects and their individual delights were fully relished by the musicians, with the hunting calls at the movement’s end nicely colouring the argument. As for the graceful 6/8 Allegro at the work’s conclusion, the Aroha players caught the music’s god-like “sporting” character, the opening motif like a “call to play” and the delicious scampering sections giving of their energies to the whole, leading to joyous trumpetings and answering affirmations at the end.

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