“New Look” NZ Trio performs old and new at Wellington City Gallery


Natalie Lin (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Sarah Watkins (piano)

Arnold Bax: Trio in B flat major
Jenny McLeod: Seascapes
Samuel Holloway: Corpse and Mirror (New Commission)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in E flat Op. 70 No. 2

City Art Gallery, Wellington,

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

NZTrio are undergoing a dramatic change. With the departure of foundation member Justine Cormack, attention at this concert was inevitably centred on the replacement violinist for this tour, Natalie Lin, a New Zealander currently living in Texas. She immediately impressed in the vigorous opening of the Bax trio with her strong, confident tone, going on to duet lyrically with Ashley Brown’s warm dark cello. This was densely-written, lush late-Romantic music for the most part, exceptions being a berceuse-like section in the middle movement, and an almost Bartokian staccato energy in the finale. Perhaps because Bax was a pianist, and the original commission was from a pianist, the overriding sonic impression however was that of the rippling arpeggios, trills, and interludes from Sarah Watkins’ Bechstein piano.

The programme began with this 1946 work from the afterglow of Romanticism. It ended with an 1808 one from the pre-dawn of Romanticism. Beethoven’s E flat trio is not well known (possibly because, unlike its “Ghost”-ly twin, Op.72 No. 1, it does not have a catchy title). Here the pianist’s articulation was aptly crisp and classical, the strings gracefully Mozartian, but everyone had Beethovenian heft where required (as in the second movement). Occasionally the interaction between the strings, on the one hand, and piano, on the other, reminded me of the treatment of voice and piano in some of the songs that Beethoven was composing around the same time (“Neue Liebe, neues Leben”, for example), or there would be brief declamatory passages (again not unknown in the lieder, such as “Andenken”).

New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod’s Seascapes (2015) are her arrangements of two of her 1995 Tone Clock pieces that were requested by Jack Body to commemorate Douglas Lilburn’s centenary year. They were good choices: the iterated piano notes in the first piece, and a hesitant Scotch snap in the second, are both reminiscent of characteristic Lilburn “fingerprints”. Having heard these rich, full-bodied versions for piano trio, it is hard to imagine them for piano only.

A welcome feature of NZTrio’s recitals is their commissioning of new New Zealand works. They have had a long association with Auckland composer Samuel Holloway, playing his remarkable Stapes at the 2005 Nelson Composers’ Workshop, and later including it on their excellent Lightbox CD(the strings, using non-standard tuning, make the piano sound eerily microtonal). Over time, Holloway’s style has become increasingly austere: in his string quartet Impossible Songs, long, often microtonal, solos on the strings are relieved only by the emergence of a sensuous female voice in the final movement. In more recent work still, there is often no such reward at the end. At last year’s Nelson workshop, for instance, duo pianists performed Holloway’s Things, in which each “event” – chord or note – had its own page: although potentially tedious, it encouraged focused, meditative listening to the inner life of the sounds.

Corpse and Mirror reminded me a little bit of Things, but here the “events” followed one another in quick succession, establishing a regular (though not slavish) rhythm. With the precision ensemble playing of the NZTrio, the piece had the effect of a “trio for one instrument”, each “sound object” finely nuanced, ever changing yet ever familiar, like a kaleidoscope, or like the obsessive cross-hatchings of the artist Jasper Johns that Holloway refers to in his programme note (Johns also provided the title). The result was rather like a jagged Webernian melodic line but with a pulse such as found in Steve Reich (one of the few minimalist Holloway holds in high regard). Not an easy listen, then, but one which had its rewards after all.

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